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.
August 24, 2010; 11:26 AM ET
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