Immigration Court Cases Now Involve More Long-Time Residents

The latest available data from the Immigration Court reveals a sharp uptick in the proportion of cases involving immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for years. During March 2018, for example, court records show that only 10 percent of immigrants in new cases brought by the Department of Homeland Security had just arrived in this country while 43 percent had arrived two or more years ago. In contrast, the proportion of individuals who had just arrived in new filings during the last full month of the Obama Administration (December 2016) made up 72 percent, and only 6 percent had been here at least two years. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Immigration Court Cases Now Involve Residents
Living in U.S. for Longer Periods
(Click for larger image)

Twenty percent of cases filed last month involved immigrants who had been in the country for 5 years or more. These figures are based on the latest recorded entry dates rather than initial entry dates so may underestimate how long the individual resided here. This would be particularly true for legal permanent residents with cases before the court.

Changing Patterns Across Time

Over time, immigration enforcement priorities have varied, as have the ebb and flow of illegal entrants, visa over-stayers, and asylum seekers. Using the court's records on the date of entry of each individual, TRAC calculated the period of time between the entry date and the date of the notice to appear (NTA) that imitated the court case[1].

The typical or median length of stay has varied a lot during the period from October 2000 through March of 2018. This typical length of stay - half were less, half were more - varied between almost 5 years down to 0.0 - this is, most had just arrived. Average lengths of stay was somewhat longer than median stays. This is because the average can be skewed upward by a small proportion of individuals who had been in the country for long periods of time.

These results are plotted in the time series graph at Figure 2. Here the average length of stay is depicted by the bars, while the lower orange line that is superimposed on the bars represents the median years of stay. The upper dark line that usually appears above the bars shows how long the minimum length of time was for the top quarter of all cases. That is, 25 percent of the cases had been in the country this long or longer at the time their cases began.

Figure 2. Length of Stay in U.S. before Immigrant Court Cases Began, October 2000 - March 2018
(Click for larger image)

During the period between May 2013 and February 2017 over 75 percent of all court cases involved those who had only recently arrived. During this period the Obama Administration had prioritized recent illegal entrants to the country. Faced with a growing court backlog and not enough judges to hear and decide new cases, DHS believed this focus would serve as a more effective deterrent. Concentrating limited resources in this manner naturally increased the odds that recent illegal entrants and over-stayers would be promptly deported.

The plot shows that President Trump's change in enforcement priorities quickly resulted in a sharp uptick in long-term residents brought before the court.

Viewing Length of Stay by County of Residence

How long individuals have been in the U.S. at the time their Immigration Court cases began can be viewed by state and county of residence - as well as a range of other characteristics -- in TRAC's recently updated app that provides many additional details on deportation proceedings through March 2018.

This newly expanded detail tool covers all Immigration Court deportation cases, both past and present. This tool is particularly powerful because users can drill in to see for any particular county or state the immigrants' custody status as well as the eventual outcomes. Details on whether the immigrants were represented or not are also available.


[1] Not all court records include the date of entry. This information was missing on 32 percent of all cases. Statistics on length of stay in this report are based on the remaining two-thirds of all cases where this information was present.

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 or call 315-443-3563.