Jul 16, 2019 - Politics & Policy

It's taking longer and longer to become a legal immigrant

Note: Pending cases equals removal, deportation, exclusion, asylum-only, and withholding only; Data: Dept. of Justice; Chart: Axios Visuals

The number of immigrants waiting on a judge to decide whether they can stay in the U.S. keeps climbing, according to Justice Department data.

Why it matters: Immigration-court backlogs "are basically crippling the whole system," Georgetown Law professor and former immigration judge Paul Schmidt told Axios.

By the numbers: On average, immigrants are waiting 727 days for decisions on their court cases — roughly twice as long as immigrants had to wait two decades ago, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) which gathered millions of court records.

The big picture: The long waits have resulted in many Central American families being released after crossing the border illegally, because it is nearly impossible for their cases to be decided on within the 20 day detention limit for children.

  • The backlog also incentivizes migration. Migrants can expect at least a few months in the U.S. before they have to show up to court, immigration experts said.

The Trump administration cited the growing backlog as a reason for new rules all but cutting off Central Americans from gaining asylum.

  • Migrants who are disqualified for asylum under the new rule will still have the chance to fight deportation in front of an immigration judge.
  • And many of the administration's actions — such as increasing ICE arrests and limiting judges' ability to dismiss low-priority cases — have made the problem worse, according to Schmidt.

How it works: There are 431 DOJ-appointed judges handling immigration cases, up from 289 in FY 2016, according to Justice Department data. The Trump administration has ramped up hiring for immigration judges and put pressure on them to work faster.

  • While they wait for their court date, asylum seekers, green-card applicants, immigrants arrested by ICE and others are either held in an ICE detention center, asked to pay bail or released, sometimes with an ankle bracelet or other monitoring device.
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