ImmigrationU.S. Immigration Courts Brace for Flood of Asylum Claims

By Aline Barros

Published 7 April 2021

U.S. immigration courts, already swamped with a backlog of 1.3 million cases, are ill-prepared to handle a crush of new asylum claims filed by a rising number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, especially children traveling alone, current and former immigration judges told VOA.

U.S. immigration courts, already swamped with a backlog of 1.3 million cases, are ill-prepared to handle a crush of new asylum claims filed by a rising number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, especially children traveling alone, current and former immigration judges told VOA.

The sharply increasing number of migrants arriving at the border, including more than 170,000 in March alone, is the highest level since 2006, according to preliminary enforcement data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Only minors arriving without their parents are allowed to remain in the U.S., along with some parents with children below the age of seven. Even so, the added caseload for already overburdened immigration courts could be staggering if elevated levels of border crossings continue.

This is not the first time the United States has seen huge numbers of migrants at its southern border. It’s also not the first time immigration judges, who rule on whether asylum petitions are granted or rejected, have seen caseloads multiply.

The backlog has grown,” said Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge and senior legal adviser at the Board of Immigration Appeals. He added there are two ways to handle the situation.

The response to this usually is: Hire more judges. And I think the response should be: Let’s be smarter about who we put into court and how we prioritize the cases and how we handle the cases,” Chase told VOA.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research center at Syracuse University, shows the backlog of immigration cases more than doubled since the beginning of 2017. 

According to TRAC, at the end of February 2021, there were 1,299,239 active cases pending before the court, up from 542,411 at the beginning of 2017. As of March 31, the United States had 529 immigration judges in 67 courts nationwide

Dana Marks, a sitting immigration judge in San Francisco who spoke with VOA in her capacity as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), said the increase in immigration court cases has been gradual and “that’s why I think it stayed under the radar.”

A Different System
U.S. immigration courts are not like the federal courts that most people are familiar with. For one thing, they are housed within the executive branch — specifically, the U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

In addition, immigration cases play out differently than regular court cases where litigants often feel pressure to avoid trial.

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