Immigration Courts Reach New Levels of Overwhelm

Abogado IndocumentadoAs the deluge of immigrants making their way through the legal system only continues to grow, immigration courts in a number of cities across the country are finding resources stretched to the limit. Fueled not only by an influx of immigrants from Central America, the court backlog is likewise projected to only worsen as the net number of qualified professionals to work in immigration law continues to dwindle.

For the 233 immigration judges who currently sit in one of the 58 immigration courts across the country, this means a case load of up to 3,000. As a result, some cases have been postponed as far out as 2019.

Reportedly, an additional 17 judges are slated to start positions by the end of the month, bringing the number of judges to 75. Officials with the Department of Justice (DOJ), which handles immigration via the Executive Office for Immigration Review, are also prepared to hire nearly 70 more judges as well.

States topping the list for a backlog of immigration cases are California, Texas, New York, Florida and then New Jersey. And while courts in these regions are overwhelmed, judges are working to increase efficiency through technology as some judges in Miami are hearing immigration cases from Texas via videoconferencing.

“Part of the solution to the backlog is a vigorous, ongoing hiring process to bring on more immigration judges,” DOJ spokesperson Louis Ruffino said.

Still, while the DOJ is working hard to get more judges on immigration benches, the effort could be an uphill battle. San Francisco-based immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks, a 28-year on-the-bench veteran and the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said she expects 100 immigration judges to retire from the bench this year.

“We’re waiting for the tsunami to come,” Marks said. “If you look at how difficult the working conditions become when you are so overworked and not given the support that you need, it makes sense that what happens is people retire at their earliest opportunity.”

While the case load is stressful on judges, those waiting in line to get their day in court are likewise stressed out. For some families, the situation means no one has means to work to earn a living.

“We see people coming into our office every ay whose lives are being negatively impacted by this,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of San Antonio-based legal advocacy group Raices. Noting one Syrian family in particular, Ryan said, “Their whole family is in a state of paralysis or suspense because they can’t move forward in the backlog.”