A joint investigation by NBC and Telemundo owned stations found immigration courts across the country are facing a record backlog that many predict will continue to grow, adding to an overburdened system and leaving lives in limbo.
In Chicago, some judges are scheduling hearings four to five years down the road. The consequences of the delay impact both sides of the immigration debate: either an undocumented immigrant with a legitimate reason to stay, such as those fleeing violence or persecution, is forced to wait for relief or an immigrant who may have a criminal background is allowed to stay years in the U.S.
“It is unbelievable what we have going on,” said Chicago immigration attorney Andrew Sidea.
According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the U.S. Immigration Courts, there are 628,698 pending cases through the end of August 2017. The backlog has more than doubled since 2009.
The amount of time an undocumented immigrant must wait for a hearing varies from court to court, but none may have a longer delay than Chicago, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University.
TRAC data shows the projected total wait time in Chicago immigration courts is 1,820 days – nearly 5 years.
“When I retired (in June 2017), I was scheduling cases into 2022,” said former Chicago Immigration Judge Robert Vinikoor. “It’s embarrassing to tell someone who appears in front of you that you’re not going to have their case resolved for five years.”
Vinikoor said a slew of reasons contribute to the overwhelming backlog.
For one, he said the courts are understaffed. There are 334 judges in 58 courts across the country. That means each judge averages more than 1,800 cases. In some courts, it’s much higher.
“I probably had over 4,000 cases,” said Vinikoor. He was one of nine judges in the Chicago Immigration Court. “We need 20 to 25 (judges).”
The EOIR announced that Congress approved funding for 65 new judge teams next year, but judges said it’s not nearly enough.
Another reason for the backlog can be attributed to policy changes made by both the former and current administrations, according to former immigration judges.
Under the Obama presidency, the courts prioritized cases of recent border crossers and those that involved children. There was a large influx of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally from Central America in 2014. That policy change deprioritized other cases that had been pending.
Vinikoor said the Trump administration has also added to the backlog through its “enforcement first” approach. He explains that government attorneys have been stripped of prosecutorial discretion, the ability to determine whether to bring charges and how to pursue a case.
“It seems there is a zero-tolerance policy right now and they are just filing everything with the court,” Vinikoor said. “You don’t need to place everyone that they encounter who may be here in violation of the law under removal proceedings. They have to take into account the facts of each particular case.”
EOIR, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, said it is undergoing a “multi-level strategy” to maximize efficiency.
“EOIR is undertaking a broad, agency-wide effort to review and reform its internal practices, procedures and technology in order to enhance immigration judge productivity and ensure that cases are adjudicated in a fair and timely manner across all of the agency’s courts,” said an agency spokeswoman.
In the meantime, immigration advocates said the overwhelming backlog is hurting people.
According to attorney Sidea, delays can make it exponentially harder to fight a case in court – evidence may go stale, witnesses may disappear, emotion may be harder to communicate.
“The real impact is just the pressure of uncertainty,” said Sidea.
“A lot of people tell us that they fear for their very life if they’re sent back to their home country. That’s a death penalty case,” Judge Dana Leigh Marks, President of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told NBC Bay Area.