Immigration

Backlog of immigration cases continues to climb under Biden administration

The number of cases awaiting a final outcome in immigration courts is now more than 1.6 million. Courts in Texas have the highest number of pending cases at more than 262,000.

In this March 19, 2021, file photo, migrants are seen in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge, in Mission, Texas. U.S. authorities say they picked up nearly 19,000 children traveling alone across the Mexican border in March. It’s the largest monthly number ever recorded and a major test for President Joe Biden as he reverses many of his predecessor’s hardline immigration tactics.

Immigration courts in Texas have the highest number of backlogged cases in the country with the number of pending decisions at more than 262,000, according to data compiled by the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The Texas caseload is about 48,650 more than the 213,600 pending outcomes in California, the second highest, while the backlog nationwide sits at more than 1.63 million cases through January 31.

The largest caseloads are in immigration courts in Dallas, which has nearly 75,000 pending cases. That's followed by San Antonio and Houston, which have about 53,240 and 43,700, respectively.

Researchers at TRAC, which uses Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the data, say the backlog is due to a combination of two factors: the COVID-19 pandemic and the delay it caused, along with a surge in new immigration court filings by the Biden administration.

In a January report on new filings, TRAC researchers said that completed cases nationwide dropped from 40,000 per month before the pandemic to about 6,000. That steadily increased to about 22,000 during the last three months of the 2021.

The increase in new filings of Notices to Appear before an immigration judge – which is the first step in removal proceedings – is on pace to reach 800,000 during the current fiscal year, which would be a record high. That coincides with the increase in apprehensions at the southern border. Customs and Border Protection agents encountered more than 2 million unauthorized people at the southern border during the 2021 calendar year, also a record high.

As the backlog has grown, so has the time it takes to complete a case, according to the TRAC data.

"During the pandemic months of the Trump administration, the average time it took to close a case doubled, rising from an average of about 600 days to around 1200 days," the report states. "The Biden administration, as the Trump administration before it, also now takes roughly twice the time to close a case from what prevailed just before the pandemic. In January 2022, the average completion time was 1,206 days."

El Paso-based immigration attorney Ed Beckett said the backlog means an immigrant with a solid asylum claim could spend years in limbo before a judge renders a final decision.

"If you have a winnable case you want to get in front of a judge and be done with it," he said. "Everything slowed down with COVID but I think that's becoming more of an excuse now."

Beckett said the backlog is part of President Biden falling short on some of his campaign promises. He said Biden did undo some of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys the ability to once again administratively close or postpone some low-priority immigration cases, and trying to eliminate the Migrant protection Protocols. But Beckett said that Biden's Department of Homeland Security is "shooting itself in the foot" by not doing more.

"I think one of the biggest problems is DHS, they could administratively close a lot of cases, they could dismiss a lot of cases, but they don't want to. They also have the discretion to not file an (notice to appear)," he said. "It's a problem created, to me, by the Trump administration and the Biden administration not doing what they promised they were going to do."

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute, said Biden's effort to address the backlog by appointing several additional immigration judges after he took office fell short of a larger goal: ensuring a fair process for legitimate asylum seekers.

"Those courts with overpacked dockets, run by the Justice Department and thus subject to executive branch control, already are stacked against asylum seekers, migrants, and other people who have come unannounced to our borders seeking a better life," wrote Brennan Center fellow Andrew Cohen.

Jackie Watson, an Austin-based immigration attorney, said Biden doesn't deserve all the blame as he inherited a system made even more broken by his predecessor.

She said sending a person to court isn't ideal, but it's better than turning them away altogether and denying them a chance at asylum or other relief. Under Biden, she said, her clients at least get their day in court.

"[Biden is] not expediting removals, so what else would they do? "she said. "These people aren't in the deportation machine that we saw under Trump. It's a result of failures on a lot of levels and I don't agree that Biden is entire responsible for this."

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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