Immigration Court Backlog Jumps While Case Processing Slows
The Immigration Court's backlog keeps rising. As of the end of May 2018, the number of cases waiting decision reached an all-time high of 714,067. This compares with a court backlog of 542,411 cases at the end of January 2017 when President Trump assumed office. During his term the backlog has increased by almost a third (32%) with 171,656 more cases added. See Figure 1.
It is noteworthy that the pace of court filings has not increased - indeed, filings are running slightly behind that of last year at this time. Instead, what appears to be driving the burgeoning backlog is the lengthening time it now takes to schedule hearings and complete proceedings in the face of the court's over-crowded dockets.
While the Justice Department, including Attorney General Sessions and court administrators, have implemented a number of new policies with the announced aim of speeding case dispositions, their efforts thus far have not had the desired result and appear to have actually lengthened completion times so that these have risen to new all-time highs.
For example, cases that ultimately result in a removal order are taking 28 percent longer to process than last year - up from 392 days to an average of 501 days - from the date of the Notice to Appear (NTA) to the date of the decision. And compared with the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration, cases resulting in removal take an average of 42 percent longer.
Decisions granting asylum or another type of relief now take over twice as long as removal decisions. Relief decisions this year on average took 1,064 days - up 17 percent - from last year. Again, these times represent a new all-time high for the court.
Current Wait Times for a Court Hearing
Cases that are now being completed reflect matters that were filed in past years. New cases may take even longer given the lengthening wait times before a slot on the court's docket becomes available. While it is not possible to know how long current cases will have to wait for their decisions, it is possible to assess how long immigrants have been and continue to wait for their scheduled appearance before a judge.
Table 1 provides a run-down on how long current cases are waiting before their hearing is scheduled to occur. There is an enormous range in wait times depending upon hearing location. At one extreme, wait times in Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, Imperial (California), Denver, and Arlington (Virginia) now average over 1,400 days. However, wait times at some hearing locations for detained immigrants can be considerably shorter - as little as a month or two.
Even these hearings can be postponed if cases with higher priority bump them off the docket, or the judge is temporarily reassigned to handle caseloads elsewhere. Further, decisions often require multiple hearings so immigrants may have to wait much longer before their case is finally resolved. In fact, sixty-one percent of cases in the backlog are waiting their "master calendar" hearing. Except for individuals who want to immediately agree to their removal, the "master calendar hearing" is only the first hearing - not the last. As EOIR explains, an individual's first appearance before an immigration judge in a removal proceeding is at a master calendar hearing. The purpose of the master calendar hearing is to advise the individuals of their rights, explain the removal charges the government has filed against them, take pleadings, identify and attempt to narrow the factual and legal issues, and set deadlines for filing any papers needed for subsequent hearings.
After the master calendar hearing, an individual merits hearing may then need to be scheduled. Continuances may also be required to allow the immigrant time to find an attorney, or for a new attorney once found to gather the evidence needed to defend his or her client given the government's particular claims.
With the current backlog and already overcrowded dockets, the ultimate delay for individuals requiring one or more additional hearings will as a result be a great deal longer than the wait times shown in Table 1. This is highlighted in the last column of the table which shows how far out into the future new hearings at that location are being scheduled. Dates beyond 2021 are not uncommon at many locations.
 Court records show that half of these are the initial master calendar hearing, while in the other half the schedule for the master calendar hearing has had to be reset.