New data reveals a staggering increase of over 1 million cases in the nation’s immigration court backlog in 2023, primarily due to a surge in migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) reported that the backlog exceeded 3 million cases in November, up from 1.9 million in September 2022.
According to TRAC, the current number of immigrants with pending immigration cases in the U.S. surpasses the population of Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city. Some individuals may not be scheduled for a court appearance for several years, with judges grappling with caseloads exceeding 4,000 each.
This rapidly growing backlog poses a political challenge for President Joe Biden as immigration becomes a defining issue leading into the upcoming election year. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, criticized the administration, claiming that the overwhelming numbers at the border hinder immigration judges from effectively handling their responsibilities.
In an attempt to address the backlog, the Biden administration has hired 302 judges for the nation’s immigration courts, and the 2024 budget request includes funding for an additional 150 judges. These judgeships are administrative positions within the court system run by the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Kathryn Mattingly, press secretary for the office, emphasized that reducing the immigration court backlog is a top priority. The agency is implementing initiatives, such as pre-hearing conferences and specialized dockets, to expedite the handling of cases.
When migrants arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum, they receive a “notice to appear” in one of the 600-plus immigration courtrooms. Immigration judges play a crucial role in adjudicating asylum claims, with the power to approve or deny them, ultimately affecting the applicants’ legal status and potential deportation.
Despite the increase in the number of judges to 734 in October, up from 517 in 2020, the courts are struggling to keep pace with the influx of cases. Judges are burdened with caseloads exceeding 4,500 each, according to TRAC.
Critics, including some Republicans and conservative Democrats, argue that migrants might be making false persecution claims with the expectation of staying in the U.S. for an extended period while awaiting court dates. TRAC’s study through 2021 found that immigration judges granted asylum or other relief in 50% of completed cases.
In fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded nearly 2.5 million migrant encounters at the Southwest border, breaking records dating back to 1960. The first two months of fiscal 2024 saw over 483,000 encounters, indicating continued high levels of migration in the Western Hemisphere.