Immigration Court Backlog: Time to Complete a Deportation Hearing Increased by 700%

By Mark Browne | June 14, 2017 | 7:34pm EDT
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Mexico City ( – Experts are blaming the U.S. Supreme Court, Obama-era policies, a surge in illegal immigrant children, a hiring freeze on judges and an uptick in asylum requests for a doubling in the backlog of cases pending at immigration courts in the U.S.

The backlog is so great, some courts are scheduling cases years into the future, according to a report this month by the government’s General Accounting Office (GAO).

Findings by the report included:

--a more than doubling in the number of backlogged cases from 212,000 in fiscal year 2006 and to 437,000 in fiscal year 2015;

--a 25 percent decline in the number of cases ending in deportation during the same period, from 77 percent of completed cases in 2006 to 52 percent in 2015;

--a 700 percent increase in the time judges take to compete a deportation proceeding, from 42 days in 2006 to 336 days in 2015.

The report also found that while the number of immigration judges increased during the period covered, the number of cases completed declined annually – “which resulted in a lower number of case completions per immigration judge at the end of the 10-year period.”

Finally, the report said that the time it took to complete an immigration case shot up “more than fivefold” during the period studied.

“Immigration judges, court administrators, DHS attorneys, experts and stakeholders told us that a lack of court personnel, such as immigration judges, legal clerks, and other support staff, was a contributing factor to the case backlog,” the report said.

“Further, some of these experts and stakeholders told us that EOIR (Executive Office for Immigration Review) did not have sufficient funding to appropriately staff the immigration courts.”

“The current backlog is unacceptable,” a Department of Justice spokesman told

The immigration court system, he said in an email, “is actively engaged in a multi-front effort to reverse the backlog’s growth that occurred over the past several years.”

The spokesman noted that the system is hiring more judges, and “reviewing internal practices, procedures, and technology in order to identify ways in which it can enhance immigration judge productivity without compromising due process.”

Jean King, general counsel for the EOIR, blamed decisions by the Supreme Court and appeals courts for the immigration courts’ slowdown and backlog.

“Immigration cases have become significantly more complex due to Supreme Court decisions and hundreds of decisions by the United States Courts of Appeals, contributing to an increasingly intricate legal landscape in the immigration system,” King said in a letter to the GAO last month.

She also blamed the slowdown and backlog on an uptick in immigrants requesting asylum, more cases involving detained aliens, and a three-year hiring freeze on judges during the time the report was compiled.

Former immigration judge Andrew Arthur told that “permissive” immigration policies by the Obama administration encouraged people – and primarily families and unaccompanied children – to enter the U.S. illegally.

“That was a significant factor that led to the backlog in my opinion,” he said.

Arthur, who worked as an immigration judge in York, Pa. from 2006 to 2015, is now a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Talk in Congress and by the Obama administration of the possibility of granting amnesty to some illegal immigrants also contributed to the immigration court system slowdown, Arthur said.

The discussion of amnesty emboldened immigrants to fight their cases in the immigration court system rather than return to their native countries.

“That’s why you saw a huge increase,” in the number of case continuances, he said.

According to the GAO report, the total number of cases completed annually dropped by 31 percent from 2006 to 2015, from 287,000 to 199,000.

The report also identified a surge in new cases in beginning in 2014, specifically cases of unaccompanied children which the report said “may take longer to adjudicate.”

“Experts and stakeholders told us that the surge not only added volume to the immigration court’s backlog, but resulted in EOIR prioritizing the cases of unaccompanied children over cases that may be quicker for EOIR to resolve.”

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