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American Bar Association Says Immigration Courts Are 'On The Brink Of Collapse'


The American Bar Association says the nation's immigration courts are overloaded and on the brink of collapse. And new data show the backlog has grown to almost 900,000 cases. WNYC's Beth Fertig reports.

BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: New York City is home to the nation's largest immigration court, where about 30 judges are working through a backlog of more than 110,000 cases.

SAM FACTOR: Good morning. This is immigration Judge Sam Factor, immigration court in New York City. Today...

FERTIG: Sam Factor is a new judge. He started hearing cases last October. By December, he was scheduling trials almost two years in advance.

FACTOR: July 8, 2020 - 1 p.m.?

FERTIG: The immigrant's lawyer at this hearing wanted to be sure the judge was referring to 2020. Factor then joked about his busy calendar.

FACTOR: Give me 15 minutes. We'll be in 2021.

FERTIG: Nationally, there are fewer than 450 immigration judges, and some have as many as 9,000 cases on their dockets, according to TRAC at Syracuse University. The Trump administration has ramped up hiring more judges, but they're still facing enormous pressure. Under a new quota system that started last fall, judges now see dashboards on their computers showing in red, yellow and green whether they're completing enough cases. If not, the percentage shows up in red.

ASHLEY TABBADOR: We're absolutely seeing some of the lowest morale and anxiety that's completely unprecedented.

FERTIG: Ashley Tabbador is president of the immigration judges' union. She says the quotas risk sacrificing due process for expediency. Immigration judges must now clear 700 cases a year to get a good job review.

TABBADOR: You are holding it as, like, a hammer over the judge's head. That is the most ineffective and, frankly, counterproductive way to run a court.

FERTIG: There have been other changes as President Trump has complained about a record number of families crossing the Southern border. The administration ordered judges to finish family cases in a year or less, even as other cases are being pushed as far back as 2023. And new policies have made it harder for judges to grant asylum. Immigration lawyers say the courts are being politicized, but the Justice Department, which runs the courts, defends its record.


JAMES MCHENRY: I welcome this opportunity to share with you the progress that EOIR has made.

FERTIG: James McHenry is director of the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, known as EOIR. He testified on Capitol Hill earlier this year.


MCHENRY: EOIR's hired more immigration judges in the past two-plus fiscal years than it hired in the seven prior fiscal years combined.

FERTIG: And he says the number of cases judges are completing is among the highest since the 1980s. McHenry also defended the quotas by insisting judges can be fair and swift. In New York, judges are trying to pack in more hearings, but that's led to more postponements. According to data obtained by WNYC, the number of adjournments made because judges ran out of time tripled last year.

The court experience is grueling for immigrants, too. I talked outside New York City's busy immigration court with Petra Baron. I spotted her crying inside as she tried to find her name on the calendar.

PETRA BARON: It's overwhelming, you know, to just - like, you versus the immigration guy that wants to remove you, you know? It's like you versus him. You don't know what he going to say.

FERTIG: That morning, a judge gave her more time to find an attorney, a common occurrence and another delay that only adds to the court's backlog.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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