Many of the thousands of children from Central America crossing the Texas-Mexico border are eventually subject to deportation, but it could take years before their cases goes to court.
Texas has the second highest number of pending immigration cases after California. The problem is simple, immigration lawyers say: The courts just don’t have enough judges.
"It’s absolutely the case that for some time now it has been clear that we did not have enough immigration judges in Texas – really around the country but particularly problematic in Texas to handle the volume of cases that we’re seeing," says Denise Gilman, who co-directs the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.
Gilman says one reason is the strain on federal funding.
"Expenditures have gone way up in terms of border enforcement as well as [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] appointment tasks internally in the U.S., and that boost in spending and resources has not been matched on the adjudication side in the immigration courts," she says.
Immigration judges don’t go through the nomination and confirmation process that other federal judges do. These judges work for the Justice Department.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghous (TRAC), is a data research organization at Syracuse University. According to TRAC’s website, Texas has about 55,000 pending immigration cases. California has about 71,000. The number of pending cases in Texas has increased by about 10,000 in the past year.
"It can be years before you see an immigration judge," says Lance Curtright, an immigration attorney and the ICE liaison for the San Antonio district, which includes Austin. "Usually you’d see the judge once a year but just because you see a judge doesn’t mean it dissolves at that time. Usually you need sometimes two to three, sometimes even four hearings before the case is resolved."
Curtright says people who are not detained are the ones waiting years because they don’t have a criminal background.
In 2011, the federal government established what’s called the prosecutorial discretion program "to identify people who were low enforcement risk to get them out of the system and focus on who should be deported and that worked for a time being but still a lot of people in proceedings," Curtright says.
A lot of people include the thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the U.S. illegally. Curtright says rather than add these minors to the backlog, the federal government could use other agencies to consider them for asylum, and regardless of age, he says the best solution is an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws.
"Ultimately, the only thing that’s going to work is Congress enact comprehensive immigration reform so these folks can get there quicker and allow judges to focus on people with serious criminal histories, people who are seeking asylum, national security risks and things of that nature," Curtright says.
Until that happens, UT’s Denise Gilman says she hopes the Obama administration would devote more money to hiring more judges and asylum officers, so that immigrants can go through a fairer and more efficient court process.