The Justice Department, which hires judges for immigration courts, was also tied up by the budget sequester from 2011 to 2014, so there weren’t enough judges to try cases, he added. Over time, the backlog grew from around 327,000 cases at the end of the 2012 fiscal year to half a million in 2016.
Judge Paul Schmidt, who was appointed in 2003 by Attorney General John Ashcroft, had around 10,000 immigration cases pending when he left his job last year. “When I retired, I was sending cases to 2022,” he told me. Schmidt, who primarily served in the Arlington Immigration Court in northern Virginia, was assigned to those not considered a priority—say, people who had traffic violations. The current national backlog, Schmidt said, largely consists of cases like the ones he handled.
The Trump administration has taken steps that could quicken the courts’ work. For one, ICE officers can now deport someone immediately, without a hearing, if they fit certain criteria and have lived in the United States for up to two years. Under the last administration, that timeline was up to two weeks, and the individual needed to be within 100 miles of the border.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also announced, in a speech on the Arizona-Mexico border, that the Department of Justice will add 125 immigration judges to the bench over the next two years: 50 this year and 75 in 2018. He urged federal prosecutors to prioritize the enforcement of immigration laws. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Sessions said. “The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch-and-release practices of old are over.”
“You have to give Sessions credit for this,” Schmidt said. “He took note of the 18-to-24-month cycle for filling judges and said he was going to streamline that.” The math still doesn’t exactly work out, however. “A fully trained judge, which new judges won’t be, can do about 750 cases a year. So 125 new judges could do fewer than 100,000 cases a year once they’re up and trained,” he said. Factor in the fact that it takes up to two years to become “fully productive,” he said, and altogether, it could take five to six years for the 125 new judges to cut down the backlog.
All the while, new cases will continue to come in as the administration enforces its new, broader policies on deportation. Newly detained individuals will be prioritized over other cases, which will be pushed further down the road. “I think it has a particular impact on asylum-seekers, because the sense of being in limbo really seems to prolong their trauma and their sense of statelessness that they have,” said Dree Collopy, an immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C. And hearing delays can affect asylum-seekers’ credibility, as well as evidence to support their cases: “Over time, especially when trauma is involved, memories begin to fade.” If a person can’t testify until years after entering the United States, “that can obviously cause problems.”
When Collopy first started practicing immigration law in 2007, cases generally would take about a year or two to complete. That’s no longer the case: “Now, it’s taking four or five years on average,” she told me. With the Trump administration rounding up undocumented immigrants quicker than courts can process cases, that delay isn’t likely to shorten.