MPI offers solutions to address US immigration courts’ pending caseloads

The report finds that many cases now take years to adjudicate. Asylum seekers, who represent 40 per cent of the court’s caseload

Vikal Samdariya

With a backlog of nearly 2 million cases, the U.S. immigration court system is in crisis, says Migration Policy Institute (MPI).  The Washington-based policy institute recently released a comprehensive report, ‘At the Breaking Point: Rethinking the U.S. Immigration Court System’, to offer a solution to address the pending caseloads on immigration.

The Immigration Court is an administrative court within the Department of Justice (DOJ) mandated to adjudicate the legality of an individual's status to remain in the US territory under the set immigration process and categories.

To address the issues, the report recommends temporarily scheduling new cases on a “last-in, first-decided” basis; model practice in state and federal court systems and establishing two tiers of immigration judges, magistrate and merits judges; terminating cases that do not meet prosecutorial guidelines, which presently focus on felons, security threats and recent entrants.

In its recommendations, the report mooted a system to restart the asylum officer rule, which allows border asylum cases to be decided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers rather than immigration judges.  The report also proposed to increase access to legal representation, which is a critical issue plaguing the courts.

On pending cases, the report argued “The immigration courts are facing an unprecedented crisis.With a backlog of nearly 2 million cases, more than 700,000 of which were received last fiscal year, as well as resource and decision-making constraints, it can take years for the system’s 650 or so immigration judges to render decisions.”

The report finds that many cases now take years to adjudicate. Asylum seekers, who represent 40 per cent of the court’s caseload, now wait four years on average for their initial asylum hearing to be scheduled, with final decisions farther off. “Serious concerns have also been raised about the quality of court decisions,” MPI noted.

The report opined, “These years-long waits leave people in need of protection in limbo, hamper immigration enforcement for those determined to be removable from the United States and function as a pull factor incentivizing unauthorized immigration.”

The report traces the factors that have driven the court system to crisis. It also assesses steps taken recently to improve the courts’ functioning and offers recommendations that the executive branch could implement to address the massive backlogs and improve the pace and quality of decision-making.

Twin issues of caseload quantity and decision quality have wide-ranging roots, from long-standing operational challenges in the courts to new crises in the Americas that have intensified humanitarian protection needs and other migration pressures. The courts' dysfunction has had severe knock-on effects on other parts of the nation’s immigration infrastructure, including notably the immigration enforcement and asylum systems.

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