Delays at immigration courts are breaking all previous records. Nearly half a million people will have to wait approximately three years to know if they will be able to stay in the U.S. or if they need to get out of the country. This leaves many who have already applied for asylum or refugee status in a limbo, and they will have to wait a long time to adapt to the new country.
One of the reasons for the delay is the arrival of thousands of Central American minors who were moved to the front of the queue. However, the system was overwhelmed even before this. Syracuse University’s databases say that, in August, there were 456,644 pending removal cases at the courts, and it is estimated that there is a wait of 35.2 months between the moment a case is presented and its first hearing.
The latest funding approved by the Legislature allocated $60 million to add 55 new immigration judges to the current 223. This is still an insufficient number, given that each judge and his or her assistants are able to see only 500 cases per year.
The organization Human Rights First has estimated that 280 additional immigration judges are needed. The group recommends that the number be increased progressively by adding 75 judges every year for three years. If the number of border patrol officers stopping people is increasing, it is reasonable to also add immigration judges.
Aside from the lack of judges, the possibility of a labor conflict with the interpreters working for contractor SOS International looms. At least a third of these employees are unhappy with the pay and the conditions of their new contract. A labor face-off would make matters worse for courts, which need interpreters in 85% of the cases.
It is urgent to reduce waiting times at immigration courts. The longer the process takes, the bigger the chance of losing witnesses and of allowing for changes that may be detrimental to or cause even more delays for the applicant.
In this case, the phrase “delayed justice is no justice” applies only too well.