Backlog of hearings at all-time high in U.S. immigration courts

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; 11:46 PM

The backlog of deportation, political asylum and other cases awaiting a hearing in federal immigration courts has reached an all-time high even as a record number of judge positions remained unfilled, according to a report released Friday.

The analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research organization at Syracuse University, found that 228,421 cases were awaiting a hearing in the first months of fiscal 2010, which began Oct. 1, up 23 percent since the end of fiscal 2008 and 82 percent higher than 10 years ago.

The average wait for a hearing is also longer than ever: an average of 439 days nationwide and as long as 713 days in Los Angeles and 612 days in Boston. Virginia and Maryland are among the 10 states with the longest waits, averaging 478 and 430 days, respectively.

Although much of the backlog results from an increase in immigration cases, successive administrations have exacerbated the situation by failing to fill vacancies on the immigration courts, the report found. (In contrast to criminal and civil courts, immigration courts fall under the Justice Department's jurisdiction. Immigration judges, who may decide whether foreign nationals are deportable or admissible, are appointed by the attorney general without need of congressional approval.)

Although Congress has allocated funds for additional judge positions over the past several years, they have not been filled. According to the report, as of January there were 48 vacancies on the court, or one out of six of the total judge positions available.

The Obama administration has failed to keep pace with turnover of existing judges, the report found, causing the total number of judges with regular caseloads to drop from 229 last year to 227 this year.

"The failure to fill positions that Congress has provided money for is baffling," said TRAC Co-Director David Burnham. "People are waiting days and days to get their cases considered; judges have less and less time to deal with each case. Clearly there's an effectiveness issue. But it also raises really strong fairness questions."

In response, Thomas G. Snow, acting director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, released a public letter to TRAC's directors: "The report is unbalanced and fails to acknowledge the effort and progress that the [EOIR] has made, and continues to make, to address the immigration caseload. Filling vacant immigration judge positions is the most important priority for EOIR."

An accompanying fact sheet stated that 28 of the vacancies represent new positions allocated to EOIR in December and that as of Monday, 15 immigration judges are in the final stages of appointment -- with EOIR having reviewed more than 1,750 applications and conducted more than 120 interviews of the most highly rated candidates.

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