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U.S. Has Largest Immigration Court Backlog On Record & Texas Is More Behind Than Any Other State

People gathered outside a courthouse in San Antonio.
Bonnie Petrie
/
Texas Public Radio
Last year, more than 100 migrants showed up at immigration court in downtown San Antonio on Black Friday to discover their court dates had been postponed until 2021.

More than 1.27 million immigration cases in the U.S. are pending – the most on record — and Texas leads the country with a backlog of 205,391 cases.

That’s according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, a program that obtains and analyzes government immigration data.

The partial court shutdown due to COVID-19 is one of the reasons for the growing number of pending cases. Currently, only some immigration courts are open, while others are open only for filings and hearings for detained migrants.

Though the pandemic hasn’t help, it’s not the only reason for the backlog.

“The Texas courts – San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, El Paso – have been, I think, understaffed over the years,” said Paul Zoltan, a Dallas immigration attorney. “Other states, other cities have been better able to find a proper workable balance between the number of cases that are pending and the number of judges that are adjudicating them.”

Zoltan said most of his hearings have been postponed and rescheduled several times. Some migrants have had to wait years for a hearing. Zoltan has one client whose case has been delayed to 2022, which would make it eight years that it’s been pending.

In Texas, the largest number of pending cases involved nationals from Honduras, followed by Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Zoltan said he hopes President-elect Biden will reverse some immigration measures implemented by the Trump administration. One of those is known as administrative closure, a tool used by immigration judges to close cases and clear their dockets, making room for higher priority cases.

An example of this would be an applicant who’s married to a U.S. citizen and the U.S. citizen has filed a family-based visa petition for the spouse. The judge ultimately has the authority to grant a green card but can’t until a decision has been made by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"There are many, many cases that are pending before immigration judges and are awaiting a decision on some ancillary form of relief,” Zoltan said. “Administrative closure was the answer that judges availed themselves of for decades.”

But even if some measures are reversed, there will still be challenges, like COVID keeping courtrooms closed. Zoltan said no matter how cases are prioritized, there will still be long waits for decisions because of the huge backlog.

Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at schavez@kera.org. You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.

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