The US Immigration Courts, Dumping Ground for the Nation’s Systemic Immigration Failures: The Causes, Composition, and Politically Difficult Solutions to the Court Backlog
Donald Kerwin and Evin Millet
May 25, 2023
The US immigration court system seeks to “fairly, expeditiously, and uniformly administer and interpret US immigration laws” (DOJ 2022a). It represents the first exposure of many immigrants to due process and the rule of law in the United States, and occupies an integral role in the larger US immigration system. Yet it labors under a massive backlog of pending cases that undermines its core goals and objectives. The backlog reached 1.87 million cases in the first quarter of FY 2023 (Straut-Eppsteiner 2023, 6). This paper attributes the backlog to systemic failures in the broader immigration system that negatively affect the immigration courts, such as:
- Visa backlogs, United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) application processing delays, and other bottlenecks in legal immigration processes.
- The immense disparity in funding between the court system and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies that feed cases into the courts.
- The failure of Congress to pass broad immigration reform legislation that could ease pressure on the enforcement and court systems.
- The lack of standard judicial authorities vested in Immigration Judges (IJs), limiting their ability to close cases; pressure parties to “settle” cases; and manage their dockets.
- The absence of a statute of limitations for civil immigration offenses.
- Past DHS failures to establish and adhere to enforcement priorities and to exercise prosecutorial discretion (PD) throughout the removal adjudication process, including in initial decisions to prosecute.
- The location of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees US immigration courts, within the nation’s preeminent law enforcement agency, the Department of Justice (DOJ).
- The misconception of many policymakers that the court system should primarily serve as an adjunct to DHS.
- A past record of temporary judge reassignments and government shutdowns.
The paper supports a well-resourced and independent immigration court system devoted to producing the right decisions under the law. Following a short introduction, a long section on “Causes and Solutions to the Backlog” examines the multi-faceted causes of the backlog, and offers an integrated, wide-ranging set of recommendations to reverse and ultimately eliminate the backlog. The “Conclusion” summarizes the paper’s topline findings and policy proposals.