The number of immigration cases awaiting a decision in the U.S. is the highest it’s ever been, with 585,930 pending cases as of April 2017, according to a new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a non-partisan data center based out of Syracuse University.
The number of pending cases has been steadily increasing since the beginning of the Obama administration, when immigration arrests surged. At this time last year, there were just over 500,000 pending cases, compared to fewer than 200,000 cases a decade ago. Under Obama, whom some immigration activists dubbed the “deporter-in-chief,” more immigrants were deported than under any other president: by the end of his second term, nearly 3 million people. According to TRAC, there simply aren’t enough immigration judges to address the caseload, even though 79 new judges have been sworn in since November 2015.
Under Trump, immigration arrests have increased 32 percent compared to this time last year, and many of those arrested have either committed minor crimes, like traffic offenses, or have no criminal record. Because of the staggering backlog of immigration cases, many of those picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement this year won’t even see a judge until the end of Trump’s first term. According to the TRAC report, the average wait time for an immigration case to be heard is 670 days, and immigrants in cities with more congested courts sometimes wait upwards of four years before their first hearing is even scheduled. For the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are detained, this backlog means indefinite incarceration: 441,000 immigrants are held in more than 200 jails and detention centers across the country, and private prison companies, who saw their stocks soar after Trump won the election, run 65 percent of all ICE detention centers.
Wait times widely vary by court location, TRAC found; Immigrants at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Minnesota wait an average of 22 days for their case to be heard, while those waiting for their case to be heard by an immigration court in Chicago wait 1,820 days.
Court records also show that 69 percent of scheduled hearings are “master calendar hearings,” in which an immigration judge explains the removal charges, takes pleadings, and sets deadlines for any additional documentation needed. For any detainee who doesn’t agree to immediate deportation, a master calendar hearing is the first of many in a lengthy removal process.
Big cities with large immigrant populations tend to have more pending cases. There are 77,387 pending cases in New York City alone, and hearings are scheduled as in advance as November 2019. In San Francisco, where there are 41,979 pending cases, the latest hearing is scheduled for July 2022, two years after the end of Trump’s first term.