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Immigration Courts and Backlog

Immigration courts have an enormous backlog that has not only persisted, but grown exponentially over the years. In 2006, the average case processing time was about 198 days. A decade later the same case will take 650 days to process. Government officials attribute the backlog to a number of factors: staffing shortages, lack of resources, changing agency priorities, etc. The immigration court backlog continues to grow during a time when the number of immigration judges on staff to handle cases increased by 17 percent. This is because immigration judges are taking more time to process cases; they are granting more continuances to allow foreign nationals to build their cases.

The Department of Justice has started hiring and relocating judges to detention centers on the southern border, but some experts are concerned that simply having more immigration judges will not solve the backlog problem. The Government Accountability Office found that EOIR — the DOJ office that is responsible for immigration courts, judges, and staff — is lacking critical management, accountability, and performance evaluation systems. These mechanisms are essential for EOIR and oversight bodies, such as Congress, to accurately assess the immigration courts and ensure that EOIR is achieving its mission, which includes timely adjudication of all cases. While hiring more immigration judges is needed to replace the roughly 39 percent of current judges eligible for retirement, it will not have a positive effect on the overall case processing times. EOIR will have to reevaluate its own practices and capabilities in order to reduce the current backlog, not just hire more judges.