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Immigration Courts' Backlog Puts Millions in Yearslong Limbo

The U.S. immigration court system's intended purpose, to sort out which migrants can stay, is so overwhelmed and understaffed that it has become an intractable bottleneck with a yearslong backlog, swelled by the grand scale of illegal immigration, the Wall Street Journal reports. While the newest arrivals and foreigners with criminal histories get priority for quick adjudication of their cases, millions of immigrants in the U.S. have settled into new lives while waiting, most of them for years, to learn whether they will be allowed to stay for good. In 2012, the U.S. had a little more than 300,000 open immigration cases. There are now 2.5 million, according to government data published by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The long delays aren’t the fault of immigration judges, said Donald Kerwin, of the Center for Migration Studies, a nonprofit that studies global migration. It is the shortfall of the federal immigration budget, he said, which is concentrated on border policing and apprehension.


People who enter the U.S. illegally and claim asylum — whether to escape persecution in their home countries or because they fear for their lives there — account for 38% of pending immigration court cases, up from 32.5% in 2012, according to data published by TRAC. Congress has for decades debated about how best to reduce the flow of migrants crossing the border illegally. Yet lawmakers haven’t done much to address the legal bottlenecks for asylum seekers or immigrants living in the U.S. without permission, leaving the logjam to worsen. Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the immigration court system, said the office “has repeatedly asked Congress to appropriate the funds necessary to increase the number of immigration judges.” The immigration court in Omaha, which covers Nebraska and Iowa, has fallen further behind than almost any other in the country. A trio of judges oversee nearly 32,000 cases that have been undecided for an average of 2.7 years. For migrants requesting asylum, the average wait is 5.8 years, the longest nationwide. “No progress is being made,” said Rachel Yamamoto, an immigration attorney in Omaha. She represents migrants whose cases reach as far back as 2008. “I’ve been doing this a long time and my tolerance for bureaucratic shenanigans is pretty high,” she said. “This is just next level.”

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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