The courts had to prioritize the hearing of many unaccompanied children, part of those illegal immigrants who crossed the southern border of the United States, many of whom came from Central America. The U.S. immigration courts were deluged since the last fiscal year by the influx of over 68,500 unaccompanied children and about the same number of family units. Most of them are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Their number added to the other pending cases, most of which involve immigrants from Mexico.
The report released by the university was based on federal data, which also identified New York, Texas and California as having the biggest immigration backlogs. They are followed by New Jersey and Florida.
According to Louis Ruffino, the spokesman for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, there are already 58 courts with 233 judges handling immigration cases and they are expecting 85 more immigration judges to be hired. This month, immigration cases from Texas are being heard in Miami through videoconferencing.
Immigrant advocates decry the inability of the courts to keep up, saying that the immigrants waiting for their cases to be heard are suffering, medically and financially because they are unable to work. They say that hiring new judges is not enough, since 100 immigration judges will retire this year. The prioritization of women and unaccompanied children, who are mostly new arrivals pushed back the pending cases that have been waiting for years to be heard.
Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, who has been a judge for 28 years said that the judges are overworked as well, handling over 3,000 cases, thus pushing back other cases until 2019. She laments the fact that the immigration judges, who are highly skilled, had no recourse but to retire early due to overwork.
She added that the prioritization mandate of the current administration has pushed back their pending caseload, which are also problematic since there are driving issues in them as well. Due to the length of time it takes to process a case, a qualifying relative might pass away and some other witnesses might be lost. A benefit due to a child might be taken away since he or she already became an adult.
She said that about 100 immigration judges should be hired immediately and that the size of the courts should be tripled, based on the length of time it takes for a case to be processed.