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Immigration court backlog hits record levels as hearings postponed due to COVID-19

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New case filings continue despite pandemic as judges struggle to reduce existing docket, report says

Auner Cobon holds his son Andry while waiting in line outside the building that houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Atlanta Immigration Court, in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrea Smith)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The backlog at U.S. immigration courts reached a record 1,281,586 cases at the end of November, as new filings continue to outpace completions, according to a new report.

Immigration courts received 29,758 new filings in October and November, while closing out only 15,590, says the report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Immigrants also are waiting much longer for their cases to be resolved, with wait times hovering around 500 days now and expected to shoot up to 750 days (more than two years) in 2021.

(Graphic courtesy TRAC)

Some local immigration attorneys say wait times are being exacerbated by court closures due to COVID-19 and in some cases by migrants at detention facilities having to postpone their hearings because someone in their “pod” or cell block caught the coronavirus and everyone must stay isolated.

“When the pandemic hit, the detained court kept going but the non-detained court stopped for several months. I have cases that were supposed to go to court in July that got postponed to February 2021 and for which I’m now getting notices are being pushed back to May or June,” said El Paso immigration attorney Iliana Holguin.

Each case involves unique circumstances, but she says many will be pushed back a year “and, of course, that pushes back everything else” in the system.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to reduce the backlog by hiring new immigration judges. Some courts on the East and West Coasts, for instance, have a nearly three-year wait for case disposition times, according to TRAC.

A security officer clears a family for entrance to a federal building in Baltimore last July. (AP Photo)

Arlington (Virginia) stands out with an average wait time of 1,507 days compared to 1,282 days in Baltimore; 1,100 in New York; and 1,054 in Los Angeles. The wait is shorter now in Texas, with immigrants in Dallas waiting an average of 388 days; 407 in San Antonio; 517 in El Paso; and 525 in Houston, according to TRAC.

“It’s hard to say, ‘this is the average wait,’ because you have some people who really don’t have a way to stay here, so they go to maybe a couple of hearings and the judge gives them voluntary departure,” Holguin said. “You have the person who goes to his first hearing and tells the judge, ‘I just want to go back.’ And then you have the asylum seeker, the cancellations of removal cases, the persons who marry U.S. citizens, so then you’re talking two, three, four years.”

Immigration courts have continued to hold hearings for detained migrants throughout the pandemic, but many are suspended when the migrant or his cellmates contract COVID-19. (AP file photo)

As of Sept. 30, more than 70% of pending cases in U.S. immigration court involved citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador. In October, federal immigration judges decided 2,200 asylum cases, denying 70% of the claims and either granting asylum or suspending the deportation of the other 30%, according to TRAC.

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