Federal immigration court backlog tops 500,000

WASHINGTON -- The backlog in the federal immigration-court system has eclipsed half a million pending cases.

The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review said Wednesday there are 500,051 pending immigration cases in the agency's courts.

The backlog has risen steadily in recent years as the number of unaccompanied children and people traveling as families have been caught crossing the Mexican border illegally.

Since 2011, more than 200,000 cases have been added to the court's docket, and the backlog likely will continue growing.

More than 51,000 people traveling as families and more than 43,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, have been caught crossing the border illegally since the start of the budget year in October.

Cases of newly arrived immigrants facing deportation have been made a priority, but the backlog still means many immigrants likely will face years-long delays before a judge makes a final decision on their cases.

While people are waiting to go before a judge, their case could change dramatically, for good or bad.

The president of the union representing immigration judges, Judge Dana Leigh Marks, said multi-year delays are frustrating to immigrants fighting for permission to stay in the United States and judges hearing those cases.

"As a judge, it's very frustrating because we have to go back to the beginning," said Marks, who is a judge in San Francisco. "It's a more time-consuming job, more difficult. It's very different when you (hear a case) within a year, as compared to seven or eight years.

Marks said the judges' union long has seen this backlog coming and has pressed for more resources.

A spokeswoman for the court system, Kathryn Mattingly, said 34 judges have been added since the beginning of the year and 277 judges are hearing cases. She said about 100 other judge candidates are being hired.

"We've been undergoing a robust hiring initiative," Mattingly said. She said a pending budget plan would allow the court to have as many as 399 judges on staff.