The Immigration Case Backlog Boom

Families wrecked while Congress twiddles its thumbs
by Published on

In 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement declared itself the largest detention system in the nation, having held more than 378,000 people in its 300 plus facilities across the nation in 2008. The number is projected to surpass 400,000 in 2010.

Many of the legal residents and undocumented people in detention wait months –sometimes years — before an immigration judge decides whether they’ll be deported or allowed to stay in the country.

They may have to wait even longer as the backlog of cases in immigration courts across the nation continues to grow, according to a new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

We are three months into 2010 and there are 228,421 pending cases backlogged in the nation’s immigration courts according to an analysis of court data, by TRAC. The case backlog was up 23% since the end of FY 2008 and 82% from ten years ago.

The average length of time cases had been pending nationwide increased to a whopping 439 days, says TRAC.

Texas ranked fourth in the nation with a 218 day average wait for a case to be heard. Houston was numero uno for backlogged courts in Texas with 5,890 cases pending. California ranked first with 619 days – that’s almost two years, people.

That’s a long stretch of time for immigrants in mandatory detention and devastating for families who lose their primary breadwinner. Remember many of these immigrants are legal residents who have lived in the U.S. legally for decades and have U.S. citizen children and spouses.

So why the backlog, you ask? Key to the growing backlogs and wait times is the failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to fill the judge vacancies on the immigration courts which numbered 48 as of January 12, 2010, according to TRAC. The number of vacancies means that one out of six of the judge positions — 17% of the total — are now unfilled.

If the Obama Administration is set on expanding criminal alien programs like Secure Communities which will add to the booming number of people in detention, it also needs to invest in the judges that will hear these cases.

And what about alternatives to detention while we are at it? The nonprofit Detention Watch Network proposes that an alternative system of electronic monitoring for immigrants awaiting hearings could keep families together and cost just $12 a day instead of the average of $99 a day it costs to lock somebody up.

The Obama Administration should consider the cascading effect having a parent incarcerated has on a family and on society. Families may have to go on welfare, school truancies can go up and children struggle to stay on the straight and narrow without a father or mother at home.

Sounds like another argument for comprehensive immigration reform. If Congress doesn’t act soon, we risk the futures of those children living in broken homes – 400,000 broken families can’t be ignored.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.