Immigration court backlog

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 13th of November, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: the immigration-court backlog.

Here’s what makes these special courts so busy: They have to deal with removal proceedings, they have to determine the legal status of immigrants, and they have to evaluate asylum requests.

For the past decade, the number of cases waiting to go through the immigration courts has tripled. In 2010, it was less than a quarter of a million. Last week, more than three-quarters of a million.

EICHER: But that doesn’t count the cases then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered reopened in May. Immigration judges had administratively closed those cases. Sessions put those back on the court’s docket.

REICHARD: Here now to discuss what’s behind the backlog and what can be done about it is WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.

Sarah, take us back. How did the backlog begin in the first place?

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: People on all sides of the immigration debate point to one big factor: a shortage of immigration judges.

Over the past 15 years or so, Congress and presidential administrations increased appropriations for immigration enforcement agencies but without a proportionate increase in funding for the immigration court system. Immigration courts continued to be understaffed and underfunded despite increasing awareness of the growing backlog. That led to cases piling up in front of judges.

Before President Trump took office, the U.S. employed less than 300 judges. The Trump administration has hired more so we’ve seen a 30 percent increase since he took office.

But it’s not nearly enough. Analysts estimate that if every immigration judge handled just the cases already in the immigration court system with no more added, it would take just over five years to catch up.

REICHARD: So if the Trump administration has added more immigration court judges, why is the backlog also growing?

SCHWEINSBERG: Well, the backlog growth is not new to President Trump. It also grew significantly under President Bush and President Obama. But President Trump’s administration is jamming the immigration courts at a much faster pace. They’ve grown the backlog by 50 percent. So it’s on track to double in just his first term. That would be unprecedented. And that’s because of President Trump’s strong emphasis on immigration enforcement.

Under the Trump Administration, ICE has doubled down on finding and prosecuting illegal immigrants. And I want to clarify for listeners that those in the backlog are not people who have committed non-immigration crimes, so violence, robbery, illegal drug possession, etc. If an immigrant commits a crime, it is handled by a criminal court, not an immigration court.

But the increasing number of asylum cases is also adding to the strain on immigration courts. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security fielded 331,000 immigrant asylum requests. The New York Times reported that’s nearly double the number of requests from two years ago, and surpassed Germany as the most in the world. This is due to the deteriorating conditions in Central America. And legally, the courts have to process each of these requests, although ultimately most won’t be successful.

REICHARD: What about the legal handling of their cases? And the cost?

SCHWEINSBERG: To answer that last question first, DHS estimates that this year there’s an average of around 50,000 people held each day in detention. That’s going to cost the Federal government about $2.5 billion this year.

And as for the legal process, thousands of non-violent immigrants held in detention facilities often struggle to access the lawyers they need to get their cases fairly adjudicated. That’s because of overwhelming demand, and lack of funds and connections. Most people are surprised to learn non-citizens—even those seeking to enter legally—are not entitled to legal representation.

I spoke with Ali Noorani from the National Immigration Forum about this issue. He says President Trump’s focus on rounding up and removing non-violent immigrants is also impacting the federal government’s ability to prosecute other truly dangerous criminals.

NOORANI: You know there’s other data showing that while the backlog in immigration court cases is going up, we’re actually seeing federal prosecutions of drug traffickers, white collar crimes, et cetera going down. I would argue that you know drug trafficker or white collar criminal who’s taking money from an American and that’s a much bigger public safety threat than you know somebody fleeing persecution in Central America.

REICHARD: So what’s the solution to declogging the backlog?

SCHWEINSBERG: Well Ali Noorani and other immigration experts say the solution has to be one that addresses the structural problems with the legal immigration system. This won’t be solved just by hiring more judges. They say we have to address how immigrants are ending up in the immigration backlog in the first place, so figuring out what to do about the millions of Americans who came illegally to the United States but have been living here for decades and whose cases are still in the backlog. And analysts say we have to address the migrant flow to the U.S. border which means focusing efforts on improving conditions in Central America so that people won’t want to leave. But the problems are so diverse and complicated, it’s not clear yet exactly how the U.S. can or should help.

REICHARD: Sarah Schweinsberg is a reporter for WORLD Radio. Sarah, thank you.

SCHWEINSBERG: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Photo/Associated Press, Gregory Bull) Maria Yuliza Soreque (center) at the border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, where she applied for asylum last month.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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