President Trump’s plans to deport millions of illegal immigrants are being bogged down by a massive system backlog of more than 600,000 cases, which is compounded by a worsening shortage of judges.
The administration already inherited a hefty backlog of cases from the Obama administration, according to a recent government audit which revealed that it takes almost one year to settle a deportation case.
But with more than a third of immigration judges now eligible for retirement, along with the fact that it takes approximately two years to hire a new immigration judge, that backlog will only get worse, especially since the findings also suggest that the recruitment of new judges is not keeping up with the ever-growing caseload.
“Unless more court slots are filled, those individuals will not be removed from the United States,” said Art Arthur, a former federal immigration judge who oversaw cases in York Immigration Court in York, Pennsylvania.
Two weeks after the Government Accountability Office released the report, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a third round of new immigration judge appointments, bringing the total to 326 immigration judges currently serving, according to a Fox News report. The GAO found that nearly 40 percent of current judges are eligible to retire, and it took an average of 742 days to hire new judges from 2011 through 2016.
Even though Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would provide $80 million to hire 75 new immigration judges, Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform, a pro-border enforcement advocacy group says that’s still not enough.
“The Trump administration still has to deal with a lot of what it inherited from the Obama administration’s catch-and-release policy,” he said. “Instead of catch and release, it should have been detain or send across the border. To do that, you need more judges and more courtrooms.”
According to the GAO report, challenges facing the immigration review agency between fiscal 2006 and 2015 include a steady backlog which began to grow exponentially in 2010 when Obama was in charge of it.
Arthur explained that the problem with the backlog is that judges who grant a continuance of a case only have fewer cases to deal and no repercussions.
Adding to the backlog is the fact that the president has signed executive orders to increase deportations and monthly immigration arrests have increased by an average of 28 percent compared to the final three months of the Obama administration. But deportations are occurring at a slower pace under Trump because of this backlog.
Acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan told The Daily Caller in July that “absolutely” there could be a record number of deportations if there were more immigration judges. The most removals in a year for ICE was 400,000 in fiscal year 2012. ICE is currently on pace to remove 202,800 illegal immigrants in a year.
“Everybody wants their day in court,” Homan told The DC. “When they’re nationals of Mexico they are easy removals, they’re quick removals. Non-criminals are quick removals. Nowadays we got a lot more Central Americans, a lot of them are claiming fear. So their immigration proceedings are a lot longer. They’re playing the system and criminals take a little longer to remove because of certain proceedings they have to have.”
He noted that once illegal immigrants “figure out” that they can “really take advantage of the system and ask for hearings and so forth… It’s harder for them to get removed.”
A report released in May by Syracuse’s Transactional Records Clearinghouse showed that despite 79 new immigration judges being sworn in since November 2015, deportation hearings are stretching all the way into July of 2022.
The report acknowledged that the hiring increase probably won’t be enough to deal with the cases coming in, let alone make any headway in the court’s voluminous backlog.”
Hiring immigration judges has been a focus of the Trump administration. The DOJ’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint called for the funds to hire 79 new immigration judges. Another factor that might bode well for the immigration backlog is the drop in illegal immigration, which is a direct result of Trump’s crackdown.
The most recent southwest border apprehension statistics from Customs and Border Protection show a 22 percent decrease over the same period in 2016.
One way the federal government could speed up deportations is through the use of expedited removal. The Department of Homeland Security is allowed to deport any illegal immigrants who have been in America for less than two years without the use of a court hearing.
Currently, expedited removal is only used for illegal immigrants who are detained within 100 miles of the border and 14 days of entry. A February memo signed by then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly allowed for the DHS to expand the use of this policy to the full extent allowed by law.
This has yet to be implemented, and, according to David Lapan, a DHS spokesman, the agency is reviewing how much to increase the usage of expedited removal. “That process is continuing but we expect to conclude it soon,” Lapan said.