President Joe Biden’s attempt to deal efficiently with a new surge of migration following the end of Title 42 pandemic restrictions has focused new attention on a severe shortage of judges, the result of long-standing neglect that has overwhelmed the immigration court system with a backlog of more than 2 million cases.
The court system is riddled with years long delays and low morale as a workforce of about 650 judges struggles to keep up with the volume of immigration cases, leaving immigrants who have long lived illegally in the United States in limbo.
The bottleneck shows how the challenges of dealing with a surge in immigration do not end at the southern border. Even as scrutiny has focused on how Border Patrol agents will manage crowds of migrants, public officials and immigration experts say that bolstering the invisible workforce of immigration judges is crucial to reforming the system.
Biden has made some progress — hiring more than 200 judges since he came into office — but is still falling short on his campaign pledge to double the number of immigration judges. Some of the judges will be working seven days a week for a time while the administration confronts the new surge, according to the Justice Department.
Eliza Klein, who left her position as an immigration judge in Chicago in April, said the latest increase in illegal border crossings will strain the understaffed workforce as they prioritise migrants who crossed recently.
That will leave some older cases to languish even longer, she said.
“This is a great tragedy because it creates a second class of citizens,” Klein, who started working as an immigration judge in the Clinton administration, said of those immigrants who have been waiting years for an answer to their case. The oldest case that Klein adjudicated had been pending in the court for 35 years, she said.
“It’s a disgrace,” Klein said. “My perspective, my thought, is that we’re not committed in this country to having a just system.”
The backlog of immigration cases grew to 1 million in 2019 during the Trump administration, but it has increased since then to more than 2 million cases, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The average time it takes to close an immigration case is about four years, according to the database. But some judges say they have cases that have been pending for more than a decade.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this week that the backlog was a “powerful example of a broken immigration system,” as he pleaded for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.