Immigration Court
CNN  — 

The US immigration court backlog reached nearly 1.6 million cases last year, with cases climbing more rapidly between October and December, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks immigration court data.

The backlog is almost equivalent to the size of Philadelphia’s population, the clearinghouse found in its latest study.

Immigration courts, which fall under the Justice Department and decide whether to deport immigrants, have been bogged down over the years as more cases are added to the docket than can be addressed at any given time.

“The immigration courts are in crisis and the time for small measures is over. The immigration court backlog can only be fixed by removing the immigration courts from the U.S. Department of Justice and creating an independent immigration court,” said Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, in a statement.

“DOJ has prioritized its law enforcement functions over the immigration courts. The result is bad management, under-budgeting, and a gigantic and growing case backlog,” she added.

Cases have been piling on faster than judges can keep up, resulting in the largest increase on record last quarter. From October to December 2021, the immigration backlog increased by almost 140,000 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

“These findings suggest that the Immigration Courts are entering a worrying new era of even more crushing caseloads – all the more concerning since no attempt at a solution has yet been able to reverse the avalanche of cases that Immigration Judges now face,” says the study, released Tuesday.

Among the contributing factors to the sudden increase is the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in some court closures, and the arrival of thousands of migrants at the US-Mexico border who, if allowed in the US, are provided court dates to make their claims of asylum. Experts have also pointed to management of dockets and the shuffling around of cases, which can disrupt their pace.

Last fall, the Justice Department ended the use of case quotas for immigration judges, which had become a point of contention during the Trump administration for undercutting judges’ authority and discretion. Judges argued that the quotas valued expediency over due process and were not an appropriate metric to evaluate judges.

While the suspension of case quotas is unlikely to make a difference in the speed at which judges tackle the backlog, it was a welcome change among immigration judges and part of a concerted effort by the Biden administration to repeal Trump-era policies.