U.S. Immigration Courts Crippled by Overcrowded Dockets and Lack of Resources

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - 10:30am
Anna Gallagher

According to Department of Justice statistics, immigration courts across the United States received over 400,000 new matters during fiscal year 2012. There are 260 Immigration Judges in 59 immigration courts who handle these cases. Estimates indicate that Immigration Judges maintain between one to two thousand cases on their individual dockets. On any given day, they may see 50 to 100 immigrants pass through their courtrooms during what is known as the Master Calendar Hearing Docket. Many of the immigrants appearing before them are unrepresented and have little understanding of the proceedings they face. Because of the huge backlogs, Immigration Courts are scheduling final hearings on the merits of these case two to three years or more in the future. These delays draw to mind the saying that justice delayed is justice denied, especially for those individuals who fear persecution in their home countries and are seeking asylum in immigration proceedings.

A recent article published in the Washington Post painted a disturbing picture of the challenges facing Immigration Judges as they attempt to administer justice under the crush of too many cases with insufficient staff and resources. The author visited an immigration court in Virginia during a typical Master Calendar docket in January of this year to get an up-close view of how the system functions. During the proceedings that day, the Immigration Judge had an average of seven minutes to process each matter, hardly an environment permitting full and fair consideration of each case. According to the article, an immigration judge described the job as “like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting.”

The increasing caseload combined with insufficient resources have taken their toll on the morale and mental health of Immigration Judges. In a study published by Georgetown University Law Center, survey results found that the strain on Immigration Judges was similar to that placed on prison wardens and hospital physicians, groups who experience exceptionally high levels of stress. The Judges reported on the overwhelming volume of cases, insufficient time for careful review of cases, a shortage of law clerks and interpreters, and failing technology systems.

Despite increased immigration enforcement across the country, the number of Immigration Judges to handle caseloads is on a steady decline due to a hiring freeze during the last two years. A third of the current immigration judge corps are primed to retire within the next year. Often these positions go unfilled and cases are divided among the remaining Immigration Judges in the particular location. A reform bill passed by the Senate last year would have added over 200 new Immigration judges, additional support staff, training and technology. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives refused to move on the bill.

The National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) has publicly voiced its concern over the dysfunctional system. At a minimum, there is an immediate need to appoint more Immigration Judges. Additional staff and resources must be provided to assist Immigration Judges to more fairly and effectively adjudicate the thousands of cases they entertain each year in their courtrooms. Immigration courts should be provided with a sufficient number of law clerks to assist the judges in the necessary research and support to draft their decisions. Finally, the Administration should seriously consider the proposal for an independent immigration judiciary as put forth by the National Association of Immigration Judges. To do otherwise threatens access to fundamental fairness and justice by noncitizens and their U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident family members.