Last spring, Syracuse University’s TRAC immigration project reported that the backlog of cases before the U.S. Immigration Court had reached a new high of 714,067. This figure represents a 32 percent jump in the court’s backlog from January 2017. It’s easy to assume that the backlog is the result of more stringent immigration enforcement under the Trump administration, but in fact, TRAC’s examination of these figures found that the pace of filings had slowed slightly over the past year. TRAC suggested, however, that it is taking increasingly longer to schedule hearings and resolve cases.
While immigration enforcement may not have played a role in the court backlog yet, that may be about to change. In June 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released a policy memorandum clarifying that Notices to Appear (NTA’s) – the document notifying the recipient that deportation proceedings have been initiated against him/her – would be applied more broadly. Before this policy memo was issued, NTA’s were reserved for criminal convictions and immigration violations as well as for fraud, misrepresentation and issues of national security. The policy memo expanded the grounds for issuing an NTA to include abuse of public benefits, being charged with a criminal offense or committing an act that could be charged as a crime, or the denial of an application to remain in the US. Because the kinds of cases that bring an individual before the Immigration Court have grown, the number of cases is almost certain to increase as well.
The Justice Department, which oversees the Immigration Court, has announced some measures to combat this backlog, including new criteria for evaluating immigration judges. Judges’ job performance will now be measured by how quickly they process cases. However, the Brennan Center for Justice warns that trying to speed cases through the immigration system may not have the intended effect. People who fear that they are being pushed through the system for the sake of quotas may be more likely to appeal their cases. Strict enforcement coupled with an emphasis on speed may only snarl the immigration court system further.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.