Mar 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Migrant backlog to hit 8 million under Biden by October, data reveal

Migrants arrive at a makeshift camp after crossing the nearby border with Mexico near the Jacumba Hot Springs

Migrants arrive at a makeshift camp after crossing the nearby border with Mexico. Photo: Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images

More than 8 million asylum seekers and other migrants will be living inside the U.S in legal limbo by the end of September — a roughly 167% increase in five years, according to internal government projections obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: That's up from about 3 million in 2019 — a sign of how the underfunded and outdated U.S. immigration system can't keep up with the rapidly growing migrant population driven by new border surges.

The backlog has left millions of people living in uncertainty about whether they'll be allowed to stay in the U.S. — or facing deportation — often for years.

  • The data show that while the backlog has exploded as President Biden has struggled to deal with the unprecedented crush of migrants from around the world, millions already were in the U.S. during the Trump administration.

By the numbers: At the end of fiscal 2023 last Sept. 30, more than 6 million people were on what officials call the "non-detained docket."

  • The government projects that will grow to 8 million by Oct. 1, according to Homeland Security documents sent to Congress.
  • This includes people who have been ordered to be deported, or who don't have final decisions from U.S. officials on their asylum or other immigration cases — but who aren't being held in the limited detention space that's available.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has about 40,000 detention beds.

An estimated 2 million of the migrants in the backlog likely will be high-priority cases — mostly those who have orders to be deported to their home countries, and some with criminal records or pending criminal charges, according to the documents.

Data: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, obtained internal documents; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, obtained internal documents; Chart: Axios Visuals
  • Republicans, led by former President Trump, have zeroed in on the release of migrants who have recently crossed the border as a national security danger, and have highlighted crimes committed by immigrants in the U.S.
  • Studies repeatedly have shown that immigrants have lower violent crime rates than people born in the U.S.

Catch up quick: Desperately needed resources for federal immigration agencies have been held hostage by partisan fights in Congress.

  • The Biden administration repeatedly has asked Congress for more money to address the border — to no avail. Republicans — egged on by Trump, who wants to campaign on the issue — recently killed a bipartisan border deal months in the making.
  • As Republicans continue to demand more detentions and deportations, ICE is having to make plans to cut back.
  • Meanwhile, thousands of desperate people keep crossing the border every day.

What to watch: The border discussion has focused recently on policy — the failed bipartisan border deal and whether Biden will embrace a Trump-like policy to block asylum seekers who cross the border illegally.

  • But immigration experts, officials and congressional sources acknowledge that any policies cracking down on illegal border crossings will require significantly more investment in personnel and other resources.
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