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A record backlog in immigration courts

By Suzy Khimm

The lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law aside, Obama has devoted nearly all his efforts on immigration to ramped up enforcement, and his administration is on track to deport a record number of illegal immigrants. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects the number of deportations to increase by 10 percent above Bush's 2008 total -- and 25 percent above the 2007 total. But this number would be far higher were it not for the record number of immigrants who remain in legal purgatory, as there's an unprecedented backlog of deportation and asylum cases that have yet to be heard. The Center for Investigative Reporting explains:

There were nearly 248,000 cases pending by the middle of June this year, a whopping 33 percent higher than where the figure stood at the end of fiscal year 2008. … TRAC also found that the average length of time it’s taken to conclude immigration cases during 2010 reached 459 days, a number higher than any year since at least 1998. By state, California remains the leader in average wait times with more than 640 days. One hearing location in San Diego posted an extraordinary average wait time of nearly 1,300 days, or to put it another way, more than three years.

The massive backlog is partly the result of more aggressive enforcement, as the administration has moved swiftly to conduct audits of businesses that hire immigrants, expand programs like Secure Communities -- which allows local law enforcement to target illegal immigrants with criminal records -- and target illegal immigrants with alleged gang ties. And the number of immigration cases will continue piling up in the absence of a comprehensive immigration overhaul and a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants. Political gridlock has kept Congress from even debating such a bill, according to the Democratic leadership. The pressure to tackle immigration issues hasn't let up, however, and the White House has decided that increased enforcement is the most feasible and politically palatable alternative in the meantime.

But that's not all that's behind the holdup. Obama's Justice Department has also failed to fill an eyebrow-raising number of judicial vacancies in immigration courts. As of March, one out of every six positions remained unfilled, the Center for Investigative Reporting notes. At the time, the agency had promised to hire 47 judges by Sept. 30, but only five new immigration judges have been sworn in thus far. (The empty slots are also a reminder of the glaring number of judicial vacancies that have yet to be filled in the federal courts as well.)

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are stuck in limbo. Some are being held in detention centers, and others are being monitored at large. It's a diverse group, on the whole: 27 percent of people in the backlog are from Mexico, 9 percent are from China, and Armenians have the longest wait time (938 days, on average). They and their families are all just waiting to hear whether they must stay or go. And both sides of the immigration debate would probably agree that the decision should come sooner than later.

Graph credit: Center for Investigative Reporting.

Suzy Khimm is a political reporter in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones.

By Suzy Khimm  |  August 24, 2010; 11:26 AM ET
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I hope that in part the backlog is due to a decision by the agency not to actively pursue the expulsion of certain groups of undocumented immigrants. I don't know that this decision has been taken, and don't expect it would be announced even if true. They need to give the DREAM students a break.

Posted by: dougkahn | August 24, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

The basic claim here (if you follow the links back far enough to the actual data) is that Obama is taking a harder line against illegal immigrants.

But that assertion seems to be based on the fact that the deportation rate has steadily increased since the early aughts, in Bush's administration.

So my question is, what actual ACTIONS has Obama taken for anyone to claim the current hardline approach toward illegals is a result of those actions instead of actions by Bush?

It's not clear to me from these links that Obama or his justice department has actually done anything except to allow career-justice-officials to do their job (which may mean the steadily increasing deportation rate is actually due to changes made by Bush).

Posted by: lauren2010 | August 24, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Correction. It is Arizona law against trespassing not against immigration.

Posted by: farmrdave | August 24, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Obama not only has dramatically stepped up arrests and deportations, but also put the primary enforcement on audits of employer I-9 records, resulting in firings of undocumented workers (rather than the more inefficient and costly "round-ups"), in order to reduce the supply of jobs that attracts illegal immigration.

None of this gets much coverage in the media, and so it is too often overlooked in the immigration debate. Thanks for drawing attention to the facts.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 24, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

"Obama not only has dramatically stepped up..."

How has he done that?

What executive order, or other executive action, or new law, caused this?

Or is this all just due to the career professionals in the justice department as a result of prior orders from Bush?

If you look at the data in those links, there is a steady increase in deportations and other similar actions from the middle of the Bush years.

I can't recall any order or action or new law from Obama to increase deportations and arrests.

Posted by: lauren2010 | August 24, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Obama and his administration has done nothing to enforce US immigration laws. No law will work without enforcement. If the American people demand a ZERO tolerance towards ALL illegal immigration, we can end this problem forever! Make E-Verify mandatory nationwide. Deport ALL illegal aliens anytime they are encountered. Secure our borders with our military, armed to use force if necessary. Prosecute ALL employers hiring illegal aliens! The time to stop this invasion is way past due. There is no such thing as a law abiding illegal alien. The free ride is over, we're broke! ILLEGAL ALIENS GO HOME!

Posted by: Stephen44 | August 24, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I love how, if deportations when up during Bush, and then up even more under Obama... it is Bush who got the ball rolling and Obama is just a figurehead. If the economy has a massive blow-out and the entire nation is going 100 mph into the crapper, accellerating every single day he sat in that office.... and then it goes to 95.. 94..93..85..75..etc.... it is Obama's fault that it is isn't going up at 100mph and he has produced no value at all putting on the breaks and saving us from accelerating faster and faster and faster into economic catastrophe.

Just amazing. Sometimes I look at my 3yr old, wishing I could be as certain about anything as she is about the tooth fairy. I look at her when she's furious that I didn't let her have ice cream for dinner, and think, wow, I can't even remember when I was so into my own tiny little mind-set that the larger picture didn't even exist.

When I hear republicans rail against Obama, making up whatever "facts" they can find to support their fantasy du jour... I think of her.

Posted by: coldfish | August 24, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

"There is no such thing as a law abiding illegal alien!"

What if he's illegal on Monday, and his green card arrives in the mail on Tuesday?

Is he an awesome flag-waving good 'legal' alien now?

Shouldn't he still get the hell out because he was illegal to begin with?

Posted by: mezcalero | August 24, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

" And the number of immigration cases will continue piling up in the absence of a comprehensive immigration overhaul and a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants."

Why is this so? Seems to me the issue is not comprehensive immigration reform, but a lack of judicial capacity to process the huge backlog of cases. Increasing this capacity will not require comprehensive immigration reform, but rather some more judicial appointments. Most of our current immigration problems can be addressed by applying the needed resources to enforce our existing immigration laws.

Posted by: Beagle1 | August 24, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

"What executive order, or other executive action, or new law, caused this?"


It is a policy issue within the executive branch. It does not require a law or an executive order. Eric Holder is an Obama appointee, and ICE and INS also report to the President. The policy reflects Obama administration policy, and (if it did not) Obama would communicate his displeasure and direct the agencies of the executive branch to move in a different direction.

The current ICE audit policy is a sharp shift in direction away from Bush policy designed to dramatically reduce undocumented hiring at the source. Use your search engine and learn what's going on, this is an entirely new way of doing business. Just one of the countless news articles on this subject:

You may or may not like the new immigration policy under Obama, but for better or worse, it is the policy of HIS administration. Theorizing that it is a holdover from Bush that Obama is helpless to stop is not going to fly.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 24, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

There is no doubt that this illegal immigration has caused more problems than anyone could have ever imagined.

Illegal aliens are destroying this Country, and one would have to be almost blind not to see this. How much longer do we have to support these illegal aliens? How much longer do we have to school their illegal alien children? How much longer are we going to let them have our jobs? How much longer are we going to put up with all the crime, stolen identities, forged documents, fake green cards? How much longer are we going to allow these illegal aliens to send money out of this Country and bring our Country down? Oh, amnesty will correct all this. WRONG! Nothing will change except we wouldn't be able to call them illegal aliens any more. Let's get rid of these illegal aliens! Let's get them back to their own Country where they belong!

It's time for ZERO TOLERENCE with these illegal aliens. When we get rid of all the illegal aliens, we will get rid of all the problems that go with them. THAT IS A FACT!

Posted by: scuncic | August 24, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Record backlog: Immigration proceedings are administrative proceedings and as such the illegal/legal alien is not entitle to a speedy trial. Being caught in immigration limbo doesn't garner any sympathy from fe. You want speed trial due process stay in your native country. Or have your immigration status in order prior to making your entry. It is possible and is done all the time for those who where patient and waited their turn.

Posted by: conroegirl | August 24, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

ICE Agents Cast 'Vote of No Confidence' in Agency Leadership

The National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, which represents 7,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents across the nation, cast a "Vote of No Confidence" for ICE Director John Morton and Asst. Director Phyllis Coven. Union leaders said that they have "abandoned the Agency's core mission of enforcing United States Immigration Laws..."

The "Vote of No Confidence" was made official in early-June and details of the vote were listed in a release issued by the National Council 118 division of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"It is the desire of our union within ICE and our employees to publicly separate ourselves from the actions of Director Morton and Assistant Director Coven and publicly state that ICE officers and employees do not support Morton or Coven, or their misguided and reckless initiatives, which could ultimately put many Americans at risk."

Posted by: hunter340 | August 25, 2010 5:43 AM | Report abuse

There already is a "pathway to citizenship." You start from your country of origin, you then apply to migrate LEGALLY into the USA. Then, you wait while you are checked out, verified, and if and only if approved, THEN you may enter the USA and become a citizen. THAT is the pathway to citizenship. If you are in the USA illegally, go back home to your country of origin, get back to the end of the line. MAYBE then you can earn the right to be a citizen.

Enforce CURRENT immigration laws already on the books. Arrest and deport every illegal immigrant. Deny anchor babies the right to citizenship if both parents are not legal citizens. 12-20 million people living in the USA illegally are not immigrants, they are invaders.

Secure the border, and you will stop the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants. The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and the current security walls in Israel/West Bank ALL prove that if you are serious about securing your borders, it CAN BE DONE. To those who say "you can't expect all 12-20 million illegal immigrants to leave:" YES WE CAN, if we want to. It's been done before, Mexican Repatriation it was called, back then. See: Wikipedia entry for Mexican Repatriation:

There is an endless pot of taxpayer money to throw at Iraq, Afganistan, and policing the oil industries' (and China's export cargo ships') safe passage. I say it's time to use our tax dollars to DEFEND the USA. It is time for us to use the National Guard literally, to guard the nation's borders.

Please spare me the sob story of breaking up families; if parents are here illegally, they can take their children back home to the parent's country of origin when deported. If you wed an illegal immigrant, you most likely knew that going into it, and if not, then your marriage is based on lies and deception. No family need be broken up; keep the family together by having them ALL go at once when the illegal is deported.

Mark Pepp
Chicago IL

Posted by: pobox10275 | August 25, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Please take time to look at the most common way to become an "illegal" person in the USA. Come to the US to join your "legal" family and work, overstay your work permit time, stay hoping daily your case will make it thru the backlog. You can't work during that time, due to the new crackdown, so you must subsist on your family's incomes and what you can barter, or work off the books.
The picture of lone individuals crossing at night is a low percentage. Entering legally and not being able to process is as high as 75% We need judges and better process.

Posted by: kdg-surf | August 25, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Posted by Scuncic...It's time for ZERO TOLERENCE with these illegal aliens. When we get rid of all the illegal aliens, we will get rid of all the problems that go with them. THAT IS A FACT...

I stumbled upon this article by accident as I was researching the immigration problems we have in the UK I was astounded by some of the small minded attitudes of what I believed to be an intelligent and highly educated nation.

While many Brits also feel there are too many immigrants flooding our nation we remain humanistic enough to understand that it would be wrong to round up every one of them and send them home without a fair process (regardless of the fact that it would be impossible).

Maybe I should not be surprised by the thinking of such great minds as one of the great minds of Europe Adolf Hitler had similar opinions, He was also a fantastic Orator and could persuade millions of followers to an horrific conclusion.

It is also surprising that given the result of similar minded extremists we are now living in fear of the next 9-11.

If ignorance is bliss then you must be Euphoric.

Posted by: donwhining | August 28, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

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