WASHINGTON -- Immigration courts are too slow to keep up with the high number of undocumented immigrants detected by enforcement agencies, despite a number of new judge hirings, according to a report released Tuesday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The government has spent the past seven years expanding its ability to detect people who are in the country without authorization, increasing the budgets for enforcement agencies by billions of dollars. But the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which hears all immigration cases, only grew by $100 million over the same period.
The result is large backlogs in immigration courts, keeping undocumented immigrants in removal proceedings in limbo and delaying justice for refugees and others who are eventually allowed to stay.
Although the Executive Office for Immigration Review recently hired 44 judges, the number of cases awaiting resolution were at an all-time high of 275,316 in May 2011, according to the report of government data from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which is part of Syracuse University.
There's a high cost to delaying court dates, particularly if immigrants are kept in detention centers while awaiting trial. The average wait time was 482 days as of May, according to the report, at an average cost of $122 per day of detaining each individual.
In the 2011 fiscal year, the government spent $1.9 billion on immigrant detention centers.
The backlogs are due to lopsided priorities in Congress, said Eric Sigmon, director for advocacy at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
"We hear a lot of agreement on the Hill that the immigration court system needs more resources, but the appetite to ultimately support funding increases is not always there," he told HuffPost. "You're using a significant amount of taxpayer money to detain individuals who are waiting for a judge to hear their cases. If you had more judges and support staff, you would be able to speed up the process while ensuring judges have enough resources to review the cases.”
Backlogs are partially due to immigrants' lack of access to counsel, Sigmon said. Immigrants in civil removal proceedings -- unlike people in criminal proceedings -- are not automatically granted an attorney under law. Many detention centers are located far from major cities, making access to free services difficult.
One solution would be to expand the Legal Orientation Program, an information-providing service that has so far been implemented in 27 of the more than 200 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
A recent report found that immigrants who received support from the program, which sends attorneys to detention centers to give information on removal proceedings, moved through the system 13 days faster, on average, than immigrants who did not.
"Many immigrants’ cases remain in the courts longer because they don't all know their rights and responsibilities," Sigmon said. "Supporting funding efforts to increase access to legal counsel or legal information would help improve the efficiency of the court system."
If House Republicans succeed in passing a bill that would allow for indefinite detention, backlogs in some courts could become even worse, said Emily Tucker of Detention Watch Network.
Along with allowing the government to indefinitely detain immigrants slated for deportation but unable to return to their native countries, the bill, written by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would make all "Habeus petitions" go to courts in the District of Columbia.
The government cannot detain immigrants for more than six months if their native country does not send them papers to return, based on a 2001 Supreme Court decision. Appeals for release under that decision are currently handled on a state-by-state basis, but Smith's bill would direct all such requests to D.C. courts, which are already jammed with appeals from Guantanamo Bay detention center.
"There's no rationale behind this other than to slow down the courts to the point that more people are in detention," Tucker said.