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How Should Immigration Courts Reduce Backlogs?

Immigration courts are experiencing a massive backlog, with a 459-day average waiting time before cases are heard by a federal judge. Nearly 248,000 cases were pending by mid-June, a 33 percent increase over the number of cases pending at the end of the 2008 fiscal year, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The Department of Justice promised to ease the backlog by hiring additional immigration judges, but problems with the courts remain. As Suzy Khimm noted today, the number of immigration court vacancies in unsettling: One in six judge positions was vacant as of March, and the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review has only sworn in five new immigration judges since.

Kathryn Mattingly from the Executive Office for Immigration Review tells TWI many of the immigration court vacancies should be filled by the end of the year. “The immigration judge positions are moving through the final stages of approval,” she says. “Once all approvals and the initial security checks are complete, EOIR sets an entry-on-duty date. EOIR anticipates that all or nearly all of these new judges will be on the bench before the end of the calendar year.”

But filling vacancies on immigration courts won’t solve all of the problems in the immigration judgment system. The American Bar Association called in February for an overhaul of the immigration courts system, which they argued leaves judges “overworked, frustrated, and feel[ing] like they are on a treadmill.” The ABA called for additional judges, but also asked the DHS to lower caseloads by targeting enforcement on illegal immigrants who pose a threat.

Facing limited resources, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they have shifted attention to criminal immigrants. But without better paths to legal residency through comprehensive immigration reform, many illegal immigrants with clean records are still entering deportation proceedings. Immigrants rights advocates argue many non-criminal illegal immigrants are swept up by programs such as Secure Communities and Operation Streamline, taking away resources that could be used to try and deport dangerous illegal immigrants. Recent figures show about one quarter of those deported under fingerprint-sharing program Secure Communities did not have criminal records.

Operation Streamline, an initiative that funnels illegal border-crossers into the criminal system for prosecution, creates additional burden on the courts — and some civil rights concerns. The large number of cases has led to some time-saving measures, such as mass hearings where up to 80 defendants pleaded guilty at one time, according to studies of the program.

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