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The immigration courts are backlogged for years. I'm shocked!

Imagine that. If you have no border they will come and you can't process them!


I preferred the movie version. Oh, sorry...if you build a wall they won't come unless you want them to enter. Ooops...got that wrong.


U.S. Immigration Courts Mired in Yearslong Backlog: ‘I Just Want a Resolution’

Millions of immigrants are raising their American children and settling into work lives without knowing whether they will be allowed to stay



By Alicia A. Caldwell, WSJ

Sept. 1, 2023 5:30 am ET


OMAHA, Neb.—Albino Cuellar Razo left his rural Nebraska home around sunrise this summer and drove two hours for what he hoped would be the final hearing in his immigration case, which began 10 years ago. When he arrived, a clerk said his appointment had again been canceled.


“It’s just an abuse,” said Cuellar, standing outside the brick building that houses the federal immigration court in Omaha. After a decade of fruitless appearances, a final decision on his bid to become a legal and permanent U.S. resident remains undecided.


“I’ve been here for many years. I work, and I pay taxes. I just want a resolution,” the 46-year-old native of Mexico said in frustration. He works, legally, at a Tyson pork plant near the home he shares with his daughter, 16.


The U.S. immigration court system, created in 1983, has become an intractable bottleneck for migrants arrested for being in the U.S. without permission or who otherwise run afoul of federal immigration laws. The court’s intended purpose, to sort out who can stay and who can’t, has been hobbled by a yearslong backlog, swelled by the grand scale of illegal immigration. The court’s sluggish output is emblematic of an immigration system that is overwhelmed and understaffed, according to immigration lawyers, researchers and politicians of both parties.


The Biden administration has given priority to quickly adjudicating cases, starting with the newest arrivals and foreigners with criminal histories. People whose cases are deemed low priority—Cuellar, for instance, was detained after making an illegal U-turn—can decide to keep trying to win permanent residency through the court system. That path affords immigrants permission to live in the U.S., but leaves them in legal limbo.


Millions of immigrants in the U.S. have settled into new lives while waiting, most of them for years, to learn whether they will be allowed to stay for good.


The immigration court in Omaha has fallen further behind than almost any other in the country. A trio of judges oversee nearly 32,000 cases that have been undecided for an average of 2.7 years. For migrants requesting asylum, the average wait is 5.8 years, the longest nationwide.


“No progress is being made,” said Rachel Yamamoto, an immigration attorney in Omaha. She represents migrants whose cases reach as far back as 2008. “I’ve been doing this a long time and my tolerance for bureaucratic shenanigans is pretty high,” she said. “This is just next level.”


In 2012, the U.S. had a little more than 300,000 open immigration cases. There are now 2.5 million, according to government data published by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. With so many new cases filed, and thus pending for far less time, the overall average wait time has shrunk. The average case has now been pending for less than two years, compared with 2.5 years in 2021, according to TRAC data. The average wait time for an asylum hearing is four years, compared with about 4.7 years in 2021.


As immigrants await a decision, most are allowed to live and work in the U.S. Many have U.S.-born children who, by the time cases are decided, face the prospect of having to move abroad.


The long delays aren’t the fault of immigration judges, said Donald Kerwin, of the Center for Migration Studies, a nonprofit that studies global migration. It is the shortfall of the federal immigration budget, he said, which is concentrated on border policing and apprehension.


In the federal fiscal year that ended last September, U.S. Border Patrol agents made a record high 2.2 million arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border. From October to June this year, they made 1.6 million arrests. The pace has slowed since the Biden administration put limits on asylum eligibility at the U.S. border and allowed for the swift removal of those found ineligible. Some are returned to Mexico or to their home countries. Others are released in the U.S. to await an immigration court to rule on their asylum requests.


People who enter the U.S. illegally and claim asylum—whether to escape persecution in their home countries or because they fear for their lives there—account for 38% of pending immigration court cases, up from 32.5% in 2012, according to data published by TRAC.


Congress has for decades debated about how best to reduce the flow of migrants crossing the border illegally. Yet lawmakers haven’t done much to address the legal bottlenecks for asylum seekers or immigrants living in the U.S. without permission, leaving the logjam to worsen.


Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the immigration court system, said the office “has repeatedly asked Congress to appropriate the funds necessary to increase the number of immigration judges.”


The EOIR has already expanded the number of judges to 649. The Justice Department has requested $1.4 billion for its fiscal 2024 budget, which includes plans to hire 200 new immigration court judges and hundreds of support staff.


Traffic jam

On a summer day at the Omaha immigration court, dozens of immigrants appeared before Judge Alexandra Larsen for a master calendar hearing, which typically affords them a few minutes each to schedule hearings. Many first-timers were given time to hire a lawyer and told to return on a hearing date next year. Others, making at least a second court visit, sought a date for final hearings, which were scheduled for next year or beyond.


In one case, a Honduran woman and her 9-year-old son who entered the U.S. to seek asylum in 2016, were instructed to return in May 2025. Their lawyer, Yamamoto, said she wasn’t sure if the date would hold. The 2024 presidential election could reshuffle immigration priorities, she said, and millions of new arrivals would likely further slow court proceedings.


Immigration court judges are on pace to finish an estimated 500,000 cases this year, which would be a record. Yet as many as one million cases are expected to be added to the backlog.


The problem is particularly acute in the Omaha court, which covers Nebraska and Iowa. The region in recent years has drawn migrants—some with papers, others without—to work at slaughterhouses and in other agricultural jobs. Guadalupe, a 54-year-old woman from Guatemala, has been waiting more than six years for her case to be resolved.


She came to the U.S. in 2017 on a tourist visa with her youngest son, who was 20 at the time. When they landed in Dallas, she requested asylum protection. She told immigration officials that she and her son had been threatened by criminals and were afraid to go home. Guatemalan police offered them no protection, she said.


“I explained that I was leaving a very dangerous situation, that it was an emergency,” said Guadalupe, who preferred to use only her middle name. Immigration authorities detained the pair and later deported her son after an asylum officer decided he didn’t qualify for protection.


Guadalupe said she was released from custody after about two months and moved to a rural Iowa community where an aunt was living. “I’ve spent a lot of time not being able to sleep” over worries about her three children and seven grandchildren in Guatemala, she said. “I go from being hopeful to having no hope.” She lives in a one-bedroom house on a leafy street about two hours north of Omaha and works as an inspector at a clothing manufacturing company.


Her first Omaha court appearance was in October 2017. She had a final hearing scheduled in 2020, which was moved to 2022 because of the pandemic. That hearing was postponed—all the available judges had previously worked on behalf of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to have Guadalupe deported. The hearing was rescheduled for this May. It was canceled because the judge, based in Texas, was reassigned to cases involving newly arrived immigrants.


Guadalupe’s next court appearance, now rescheduled for September, will be used to set a date for her final hearing. “She told me. ‘I just want my day in court,’ ” said Heidi Oligmueller, Guadalupe’s lawyer.


Sole support

Presidential administrations have tried to address the backlog by changing rules to more quickly process new cases. That required judges to further delay older, lower priority cases. The Obama administration enacted the first such initiative in 2012, when there was a backlog of around 300,000 cases, about one-eighth of the current total. That continued largely unchanged through the Trump and Biden administrations.


Cuellar is one of the lower-priority cases. He first crossed the border into the U.S. illegally in 1993 and then briefly left the country. He illegally returned in 1998, first to Arizona and then to live in Nebraska. In 2013, he was arrested and turned over to federal authorities after he was stopped for making an illegal U-turn, he said.


For the next decade, his immigration case has been moved to the bottom of the pile. Because of delays in the case, he has been able to renew his work permit every year, paying $410 plus legal fees. He is seeking permission for permanent residency, he said, on the grounds that he is the sole provider for his U.S.-born teenage daughter Karen and deportation would cause her undue hardship.


Karen Cuellar said the court delays have taken an emotional toll—not knowing whether her father will be ordered back to Mexico.


“It’s been really tough. I feel like I’ve had to mature faster than I should,” said Karen, who nonetheless doesn’t feel ready to live in the U.S. alone. “If he leaves, I have to go with him.”


Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at alicia.caldwell@wsj.com

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