LA Has About 40 Immigration Judges. Pending Cases: 74,000 And Growing

A long line of people wait outside the immigration court on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles in October 2018. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

In Los Angeles County and around the country, the immigration court case backlog continues to climb. The Trump administration says it's working to reduce the load while critics argue its policies are adding to it.

The Central American migrants gathering at ports of entry in Mexico and seeking asylum could add to the backlog if they are allowed to apply and their cases move forward. Those requests potentially could add thousands of cases to a court system already straining at the seams.

Fewer than 40 judges in L.A.'s immigration court are currently juggling nearly 74,000 pending immigration cases for adults and minors. Only New York's immigration court is busier.

Over the past two years, the case backlog has jumped by nearly 50 percent both locally and nationally.

Since fiscal year 2016, the pending immigration court caseload in Los Angeles grew from 49,613 to 73,988 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (TRAC), which follows federal legal proceedings. Nationwide, there are now 768,257 active pending cases, a historic high, handled by about 410 judges.

LONG LINES, LONG WAITS

A lengthy line of people recently snaked around the block outside an office building on Olive Street just off Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. The nation's second-busiest immigration court is housed there on a few of the upper floors.

Los Angeles-based Judge Ashley Tabaddor is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the union that represents the judges. She hears cases in the downtown L.A. immigration court. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)


Stepping out for a quick break before the busy afternoon docket, Judge Ashley Tabaddor described how her day will go:

"An initial master calendar of about 20 to 25 unaccompanied children, and this afternoon it's going to be the juvenile detained docket....then I have a continued merits hearing, then a case set over for decision...so it's a pretty busy day."

In recent months, the U.S. Department of Justice says it has taken steps to reduce the backlog. Forty-four new immigration judges were brought on in September and another 16 in November as part of a national hiring push. About 15 new judges have been assigned to L.A. in recent months.

But the additional help hasn't been enough and the backlog continues to grow.

Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University

In October, a controversial quota system for judges kicked in. They must now complete at least 700 cases a year to earn a satisfactory job review. Judges have also been discouraged from continuing cases as a means to speed up decisions.

At the same time, critics say, the Trump administration's immigration-crackdown policies and shifting rules have added to the backlog by piling on deportation cases.

A host of recent changes have affected the courts:

  • With Trump's stricter immigration enforcement, some cases once considered "administratively closed" have been reopened.
  • Judges are now restricted from using administrative closure, long used by judges as a way of temporarily shelving low-priority deportation cases that were not ready to be decided, and allowing the individual to stay in the country if they are law-abiding.
  • Court dockets have been reshuffled. As more families have arrived from Central America seeking asylum, and the government moves to quickly deport them, judges say these new cases are being moved to the front of the line, while older cases languish.
  • Immigration officials now have more leeway to start a deportation case: They may now order immigrants into court when an application or petition is denied or has problems, issuing them what's called a Notice to Appear.

"The backlog in the immigration courts has gotten longer because the administration has taken steps that have made the backlog worse, not better," said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "There is no evidence to me that the administration really wants to reduce the backlog."

ONE IMMIGRANT'S CASE

Among the hundreds of thousands of pending cases is Adriana's. The 26-year-old is the wife of a U.S. citizen and lives with her husband and 2-year-old son in Fontana. She asked we not use her last name because she fears telling her story will hurt her case

One of the wedding photos displayed in Adriana's Fontana home. The 26-year-old wife and mother married her U.S. citizen husband in 2014. (Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)

Adriana was 12 when she and her family came to the United States from Mexico on temporary visas and overstayed their visit.

Adriana met her husband when she was in her late teens. Soon after their wedding in 2014, they applied for her conditional green card. Then, after two years, she and her husband filed paperwork to lift the conditions and make her a permanent legal resident.

But things got bungled. The couple had hired a notary to do the follow-up paperwork. They sent in a check for the processing fee to the government but the notary sent incomplete forms. They had to submit their paperwork twice.

"It took about two months," Adriana said. In the interim, they had car payments and insurance to pay. By the time the government tried to cash their check, it bounced.

Last December, Adriana received a Notice to Appear from immigration officials: she had been placed in deportation proceedings and now was ordered to appear in court. To add to her troubles, Adriana, who trained to become a medical assistant after she married, lost her work permit now that her case is in court.

Her lawyer, Jennefer Canales, said in the past, immigration officials would have simply requested more evidence and accepted a new check rather than open up a deportation case. No more.

"It's really just adding more cases ... they are trying to put up as many barriers as possible for individuals to have legal status in the United States ...," Canales said. "This case, Adriana's case, is a really good example of just a waste of resources."

Her case also helps highlight the frustration with the court backlog for both sides in the immigration debate who want the delays resolved.

Immigration-restriction advocates seek to have deportations speeded up and denounce how those who don't have a good case can remain in the U.S. for months and years awaiting a decision. Advocates for the immigrants say people with meritorious cases or ones that could be easily resolved get stuck in the court system indefinitely, their lives placed on hold.

BLEAK PICTURE FOR CARAVAN MIGRANTS: ASYLUM DENIALS UP

More asylum cases are being denied in immigration court, according to TRAC. In fiscal year 2018, out of 42,224 asylum decisions by judges, 65 percent were denials. Six years ago, denials amounted to just 42 percent of asylum decisions.

The increase in denials comes as the Trump administration implements steps making it more difficult for asylum seekers to qualify for relief. A June decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions restricted the grounds on which immigration judges can grant asylum, making it more difficult for those who have fled gang violence or domestic violence to qualify. Many migrants from Central America cite these reasons for exiting their countries.

Sessions' decision is being challenged, but all of this paints a bleak picture for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., even if they pass an initial "credible fear" interview are allowed to carry forward with their cases.

CAN THE BACKLOG GET SOLVED?

Former immigration judge Andrew Arthur, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies that advocates for immigration restrictions, supports the judges' quota system and the new limits on judges' discretion.

These clearly defined rules are "crucial to bringing down the backlog," Arthur said. "An expectation that a government attorney would get a certain amount of work done in a given time is not far outside the realm of what should be expected."

The quotas have received pushback from the National Association of Immigration Judges and legal advocates.

Judges like Tabaddor, who heads the union, said placing job-performance quotas on judges can interfere with due process for the immigrants whose fates they decide.

"It really puts the judges in a tough bind because it is introducing their own personal financial interest into their role as judges ... [They are] supposed to be as an impartial decision maker, separate and apart from the parties before them," Tabaddor said.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association and the judges' union are pushing to make the immigration courts independent from the executive branch, as are the federal tax and bankruptcy courts. The groups say giving judges more freedom to manage their caseloads could help alleviate the backlog.

In addition, Tabaddor said: "As an independent court, we would never be used as a political tool."

WAITING FOR A DECISION

Adriana's next court date is scheduled in May.

She worries about how long it could take for her case to be resolved. As she fights deportation in court, she also is awaiting a decision on her permanent green card from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"It's setting us back a little bit financially, honestly," said Adriana. Since she can't work legally, she spends her days at home with the couple's toddler. They survive on her husband's income alone — and wait for the birth of their next child.

If her case isn't resolved by May, her lawyer may have to file for other forms of relief, which could mean an even longer wait.

Meanwhile, wait times for immigration court hearings have increased as the case backlog grows. TRAC researchers reported earlier this year that in Los Angeles, some immigration court hearings were being scheduled as far out as 2021.