Deportation proceedings at a record clip, but far outstrip court capacity

By: - September 26, 2023 4:50 am

Immigrants walk towards the Rio Grande to cross into Del Rio, Texas on Sept. 23, 2021, from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. Mexican immigration officials had launched an operation in a small migrant camp on the Mexican side of the river, and many families, fearing deportation, surged across the border to take their chances on the U.S. side. (Photo by John Moore / Getty Images).

The number of deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants set a record for August, but the increases only highlighted the fact that backlogged immigration courts are unable to handle them, according to an analysis released last week.

Despite dystopian claims about the southwestern border made by some politicians, many undocumented immigrants are not in the United States illegally. They cross the border, turn themselves in and seek asylum, claiming they’re victims of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their politics

While seasonal spikes in encounters with undocumented immigrants at the Southwestern border have garnered media attention, overall numbers of the undocumented in the United States have stayed relatively stable over the past 15 years.

Even so, federal authorities have faced intense pressure to do something. A report released last week by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, shows they have — and created additional problems in the process.

In August, a record 180,000 deportation cases were filed with the U.S. Immigration Court. That’s almost 20% more than the previous high set in July — 152,000.

California, Florida, New York and Texas led the way in terms of the most deportation filings since the beginning of June for immigrants living in those states — 160,000, 150,000, 146,000 and 139,000, respectively.

Ohio was further down the list with 22,000. In total, federal authorities filed 1.2 million new deportation proceedings this year.

Some have sneeringly dubbed the practice of processing undocumented immigrants and then allowing them to stay and await court hearings “catch and release.”  The implication is that immigrants are allowed to slip into the general population and engage in mayhem.

However, research indicates that the undocumented commit crime at substantially lower rates than the native born and legal immigrants. That might make sense, because people without their papers would be unlikely to want to attract the attention of law enforcement.

But evidence also shows that those with asylum claims usually don’t slip away, never to be heard from again. In fact, a 2021 analysis of government data by the American Immigration Council found that between 2008 and 2018, 83% of undocumented immigrants showed for their hearings in immigration court.

But increasing deportation filings and good attendance have created another problem pointed out in last week’s TRAC report. The system doesn’t have enough capacity to timely process cases that already have been filed, much less handle the new ones.

Some politicians advocate tough-sounding, unrealistic actions at the border such as shooting migrants or building an alligator-filled moat in the desert. But practical solutions are more prosaic.

“All Immigration Courts across the country are struggling with large backlogs,” the TRAC report said. “While the Executive Office for Immigration Review has ramped up recruiting efforts to add new Immigration Judges, decades of underfunding have meant that it has been unable to make a dent in the backlog which continues to climb. It has reached 2,620,591 at the end of August.”

In other words, millions of asylum seekers have followed the rules — including by showing up for their hearings — yet they’re often stuck in an indefinite limbo.

“Each month more cases arrive than the Court is able to process. And the gap is widening since arrivals have been increasingly outpacing completions… ,” the TRAC report said.”It is no longer possible to even estimate wait times since growing numbers of cases now are waiting without any hearing even scheduled.”



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.