Under Trump: Civil Lawsuits Up To Redress Immigration Action and Inaction

The latest available data from the federal courts show that, as of the end of March 2017, there have been 763 new civil immigration lawsuits filed in disputes involving immigration matters since January 20, 2017 when President Trump assumed office. Almost all of these lawsuits have been brought by immigrants seeking redress from federal government action or inaction. These suits typically involve petitions for release from detention, or seek action on a visa or naturalization application.

The growth in these suits began during Obama's presidency. Starting around March 2015, the number of these lawsuits filed each month began to rise. The latest figures through March 2017 indicate this increase has continued after President Trump assumed office.

Table 1. Immigration Civil Filings
Number Latest Month 318
Percent Change from previous month 5.6%
Percent Change from 1 year ago 40.5%
Percent Change from 5 years ago 105.6%

According to the case-by-case court records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, during March 2017 there were 318 new federal civil filings involving these immigration matters. This number is up 5.6 percent over the previous month when the number of civil filings of this type totaled 301. See Table 1.

When monthly 2017 civil immigration filings are compared with those of the same period in the previous year, their number was up 40.5 percent. Civil filings for March 2017 are higher than they were for the same period five years ago. Overall, the data show that civil filings of this type are up 105.6 percent from levels reported in March 2012.

Figure 1. Civil Immigration Filings Over the Last Five Years

The long term trend in civil immigration filings going back five years is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of civil filings of this type recorded each month. The superimposed line on the bars plots the six-month moving average so that natural fluctuations are smoothed out. One-year and five-year change comparisons in Table 1 are based upon these moving averages.

Federal Civil Immigration Lawsuits by Cause of Action

Nearly half (47%) of the 763 suits filed since January 20, 2017 were brought by individuals detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These individuals sought release from their detention and/or a court order to prevent their deportation. Most of the remaining suits challenged government inaction. One third (33%) were mandamus suits to compel the federal government to act on visa or related applications. Another 8 percent sought a hearing or other action on naturalization applications. See Table 2 and Figure 2.

Table 2. Federal Civil Immigration Suits Filed by Type During Trump Administration*
Type of Civil Immigration Action Number Percent
Total 763 100%
Habeas Actions by ICE Detainees 359 47%
Mandamus Actions by Visa and Other Applicants 248 33%
Naturalization Petitions 63 8%
Other 93 12%
* from January 20 - March 31, 2017.

The remaining suits involved a variety of other causes of action, including claims of constitutional violations, civil rights matters, asylum, citizenship, and Administrative Procedure Act (APA) violations.

Figure 2. Federal Civil Immigration Suits by Type During Trump Administration

Where Are Actions Being Filed

Since President Trump assumed office, four out of every ten of these new lawsuits have been filed in just three federal districts. These three districts were centered in the greater New York City area. The federal district court in the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn) had the largest number with 136 of these civil immigration suits. In second place with 90 suits was the New Jersey federal district court. The federal court in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) had the third highest number in the nation with 77.

Right behind the Manhattan court was the Central District of California (Los Angeles) with 75 new lawsuits. After that no district had more than 35 new filings. Once the California Central district was added to the New York metro area districts, the combined four districts accounted for half of all civil immigration suits filed since January 20.

However, the make-up of these lawsuits were quite different among these districts. Nine out of every ten suits in New Jersey were filed by ICE detainees seeking to be released from custody. This large percentage reflects the number of ICE detention beds located in that state. The largest facility is the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility operated by the Corrections Corporation of America in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In contrast, in the New York East and California Central judicial districts, three out of four were seeking to compel action on a visa or naturalization application. New York South had a split between those brought by ICE detainees seeking release from custody and immigrants seeking to get DHS to act on visa, naturalization, or other applications.

A total of 52 out of the 94 federal judicial districts had one or more civil immigration lawsuits filed in federal court since President Trump assumed office. The number of suits in each of these districts is shown in Table 3.

Federal District** Number Percent
Total 763 100%
N. Y., E 136 18%
N. J. 90 12%
N. Y., S 77 10%
Cal, C 75 10%
Penn, M 35 5%
Ill, N 33 4%
Ala, N 31 4%
Mass 24 3%
Wash, W 21 3%
Cal, N 20 3%
Ga, M 20 3%
Penn, E 17 2%
Texas, S 16 2%
Texas, W 14 2%
La, W 13 2%
Arizona 12 2%
Fla, S 11 1%
Texas, N 11 1%
Fla, M 9 1%
Ga, N 9 1%
D. C. 8 1%
Mich, E 8 1%
Cal, E 6 1%
Ohio, S 6 1%
Virg, E 6 1%
Minnesota 5 1%
Ill, S 4 1%
Maryland 4 1%
Cal, S 3 0%
Conn 3 0%
Ind, S 3 0%
New Hamp 3 0%
Oregon 3 0%
Mich, W 2 0%
N Mexico 2 0%
N. Y., W 2 0%
Nebraska 2 0%
Nevada 2 0%
Texas, E 2 0%
Utah 2 0%
Virg, W 2 0%
Colorado 1 0%
Fla, N 1 0%
Kansas 1 0%
N Car, E 1 0%
N Car, M 1 0%
N. Y., N 1 0%
Penn, W 1 0%
S Car 1 0%
Tenn, W 1 0%
Wash, E 1 0%
Wisc, E 1 0%
* from January 20 - March 31, 2017. ** districts not listed had no new suits filed
TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.