Jan 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The immigration court backlog is growing

Quarterly increase in immigration backlog
Data: TRAC; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The number of people waiting for immigration court decisions is greater than the population of Philadelphia — and is building, according to new data and analysis from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Why it matters: The booming backlog points to a broken immigration system and often leaves immigrants awaiting decisions on asylum or other cases in legal limbo for longer periods of time.

  • Court closures caused by the pandemic have played a role in slowing judges' ability to complete cases.
  • But the number of new cases being added by the Department of Homeland Security has also risen during the Biden administration, according to TRAC.

By the numbers: Cases in the backlog include asylum seekers hoping to be granted permanent refuge in the U.S., immigrants arrested by ICE who are fighting to avoid deportation and other denied applicants for immigration benefits.

  • The backlog grew by 139,000 pending immigration court cases between October and December 2021 — the largest quarterly growth on record, according to TRAC.
  • It brings the total number of pending cases to nearly 1.6 million as of the end of December.
  • Asylum seekers now wait on average 58 months — almost 5 years — for a hearing.

What to watch: The immigration court system is overseen by the Justice Department.

The House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration and citizenship held a hearing Thursday afternoon to discuss making the immigration court system independent.

  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) also plans to propose a bill to revise the court system, according to reporting by Roll Call.
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