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Overlooked, Overwhelmed: Immigration Courts Under the Obama Administration

New statistics from TRAC, Syracuse University’s federal data monitoring project, confirms what immigration advocates have known all along: immigration enforcement under the Obama Administration is at an all-time high. According to the study, there are more than 242,000 immigration cases waiting on deck in the Immigration Court system--this figure is six percent higher than just four months ago, and over thirty percent higher than 18 months ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Immigration Courts in Los Angeles and New York have the largest backlog, with 42,806 cases and 36,197 cases pending as of March 2010.

This phenomenon is in part due to an acute shortage of immigration judges, which has left one out of six judge positions empty. But the staggering caseload is also clearly a consequence of stepped-up immigration enforcement at the federal and local level. In Las Vegas this week, a prominent immigration lawyer reported a marked increase in the immigration court caseload after the city signed a 287(g) agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—a partnership which gives trained local police officers the power to start deportation proceedings. Indeed, the city saw a 38 percent rise in backlogged cases 18 months after the start of its 287(g) program.

While our federal immigration agency has focused its efforts on identifying, detaining and deporting immigrants, little attention has been paid to the efforts of courts charged with prosecuting these cases.

A groundbreaking study released earlier this year by the American Bar Association revealed that the immigration adjudication system has been “overwhelmed” by the massive caseload. One particularly troubling finding: immigration judges handle more than 1,200 proceedings per year, with a woefully inadequate number of support staff. The result? Our judges do not have enough time to fully consider each case, and are forced to issue oral rather than written decisions “that are not fully researched and lack sufficient bases in law or fact.” Keep in mind that these judges are responsible for making the life-altering decisions that determine whether or not an individual must leave this country.

Unfortunately, this crisis will only worsen as ICE rapidly scales up its federal-local immigration initiatives, like the Secure Communities and Criminal Alien Programs. These programs are designed to funnel thousands of immigrants, undocumented and legal permanent resident alike, into our already overburdened immigration court system—the sheer scale of this endeavor will make it less likely that they see a fair day in court.

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Posted at 4:00 PM, Jun 04, 2010 in Immigration
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