RELEASE: Analysis of Overloaded U.S. Immigration Court System Shows Essential Need to Address Enforcement Overdrive

Washington, D.C. — While President Barack Obama finalizes plans to take executive action on immigration and provide relief to a portion of the nation’s undocumented immigrant population, enforcement overdrive and paltry resources for the immigration court system have caused a significant backlog of cases waiting to be heard.

New analysis published today by Center for American Progress experts Marshall Fitz and Philip E. Wolgin illustrates in a series of charts the effects that ramped-up enforcement has had on deportations and processing times for pending cases in the immigration courts.

The United States now spends more on immigration enforcement—nearly $18 billion per year—than on all other federal law enforcement combined. This enforcement overdrive has meant that the number of people deported each fiscal year has steadily risen, as has the number of immigrants who are detained and prosecuted. As increased enforcement has put more immigrants into the removal process, the nation’s immigration court system has struggled to keep up. Over the past 15 years, the number of cases pending in the immigration court system has more than tripled, and today, it takes an average of 567 days for a case to be processed.

“Increasing both funding and the number of judge teams available to hear cases is critical to ensuring that people do not have to wait years for their immigration cases to be resolved,” said Marshall Fitz, CAP Director of Immigration Policy and co-author of the analysis. “Likewise, providing immigrants with meaningful access to counsel—including, when appropriate, court-appointed counsel—will help speed up the proceedings and introduce more due process into the system.”

The expert analysis concludes that by resourcing the courts commensurate with their inflated caseloads and curtailing the number of people put into the system in the first place, the United States will be able to start working toward a more functional immigration court system.

“Simply increasing resources will not solve the bigger problem of 200,000 immigrants needing to appear before the courts each year in the first place. It is past time to reduce the volume of deportation actions,” said Philip E. Wolgin, CAP Senior Policy Analyst and co-author of the analysis. The president’s expected executive action will hopefully begin that process by ensuring that low-priority immigrants who have been living in the country for years can get deferred action—a temporary reprieve from deportation and a work permit—and by focusing enforcement resources on tracking down and removing serious criminals, rather than on putting otherwise-law-abiding immigrants into the overburdened deportation system.”

For more information on this topic, contact Tanya Arditi at  or 202.741.6258.

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