Immigration is perhaps the most bogged down in partisan rhetoric of any issue in the United States. But this year, Republicans and Democrats found enough common ground to address a vital piece of the system -- the woefully under-resourced immigration courts. On Friday, lawmakers agreed on a spending bill that funds 55 new immigration judge teams.
The U.S. immigration court system is in dire straits. The most recent Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) numbers show a staggering half-million pending cases before U.S. Immigration courts, resulting in an all-time high of 635-day average wait time for adjudication. TRAC also notes, "the projected total time from the date their case was filed until their hearing date is scheduled is now 1,071 days -- or just under three years (35.2 months)."
For the thousands of asylum seekers needing protection, the immigration court is their opportunity to make their case and have their due process rights fulfilled. Yet while funding for apprehension and detention significantly increased in recent years, funding for the court system remained largely stagnant. Between 2002 and 2013 funding for immigration enforcement increased 300 percent, while immigration court budgets grew just 70 percent. The result: a bottleneck leading to a huge backlog, ultimately undermining the integrity of the entire system.
Congress deserves credit for coming together to fund more immigration judge teams. But to make real progress towards eliminating the backlog, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle must increase the immigration court to a size that can handle the number of removal cases referred into the system by enforcement authorities.
Human Rights First and a diverse range of allies have called for increased funding to address the backlog. Editorials across the country, including The Houston Chronicle, The Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, Bloomberg Views, The New York Times, and the LA Times, highlight the need for additional immigration judges. So do religious leaders such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who state, "funding for the U.S. immigration court system should increase by an order of magnitude."
Former ICE Assistant Secretary under George W. Bush, Julie Myers Wood, stated earlier this year that the backlog undermines both immigration enforcement and due process. She writes, "Adequate immigration court staffing is an essential component of enforcement. With an appropriate number of judges and staff, cases will be decided in a timely and fair manner." The Bipartisan Policy Center also notes, "more judges would reduce the backlog, which would allow the enforcement system to function more efficiently and help migrants receive a fairer hearing."
Given the size of the growing backlog, Human Rights First calculates that 280 additional immigration judges are needed to fulfill the court's role in the immigration removal system. The agreement to fund 55 new immigration judges is a step in the right direction, and signals that lawmakers can find common ground on this important issue.
This bipartisan step forward reflects the hard work of numerous Republican and Democratic lawmakers who understand the critical need for such funding -- rightfully putting good policy before politics. Strong bipartisan leadership is still needed to fully address the immigration court backlog. Congress should continue to work together to add another 225 immigration court judge teams in the coming years.