Immigration Court Caseload Climbs – and Offers New Data Source

By David North on October 22, 2010

Newly released data show huge and growing numbers of cases caught up in the immigration courts, while providing an intriguing (to me, at least) way of tracking the geographic distribution of illegal aliens within the U.S. by their nation of birth.

The numbers are numbing. As of the end of September, 261,083 cases were pending in these courts, all waiting for individual hearings before the judges, virtually all facing deportation if they lose.

For the individuals, they are at a dramatic crossroads between staying and leaving; for the nation, it is a huge population that faces removal, but cannot be removed till the process is over.

The information comes from the annual report of a Syracuse University institution with the initials TRAC. That stands for the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, the foundation-supported data retrieval system that has pried an immense collection of data out of the Department of Homeland Security through the Freedom of Information Act.

TRAC knows, and presents with electronic flair, data on the number of persons awaiting trial, their location in the U.S., their nationalities, and how long they have been waiting. There is also information on how many (or rather how few) immigration judges are on hand to make the needed decisions.

In an earlier release TRAC reported that there were 239 immigration judges with regular caseloads as of January of this year. Given the total national backlog of 261,083 that works out to almost 1,100 cases (and/or potential cases) for every judge.

An alien generally winds up in immigration court in one of two ways; he (or sometimes she) has been ordered deported, and he wants the judge to over-rule that decision, or, his or her asylum case has been rejected by the asylum unit of USCIS and he or she seeks to get that decision reversed. TRAC, in other reports, provides detailed information on all those decisions.

The grim immigration policy news is that the backlogs are both large and growing rapidly. TRAC says the numbers are up 5.3 percent from three months ago, and up 40 percent from two years ago. Waiting times, which vary considerably from court to court, now run a national average of 456 days – that is more than a year and three months. Some of those waiting for hearings are in detention, far more are at liberty, and some of the latter may not show up when called.

TRAC calculates wait time by state, and finds that California, with 630 days, records the longest waits, with Massachusetts next, with 620 days. TRAC has wait times by nationality, and finds that the rather small cohort (1,379) of Armenians has the longest wait times in the nation, 911 days. Playing with the cross-tabulations you soon learn that the long waiting times for the Armenians apparently relate, at least in part, to their location; the overwhelming majority of them are in California.

As I explored the data set I also found that in California the longest wait time on average was for people from Swaziland, the land-locked, poverty-stricken, absolute monarchy in southern Africa. Poking a little further, I found that there were exactly five Swazis with cases before the courts, nationwide, and the one in California had been waiting (and perhaps delaying the case himself) for 1,972 days, or 5.4 years. Given my image of that little country, I was surprised that only five people from there were in the immigration court system.

As you can see, it is easy to cross-tabulate where those facing deportation came from, and where they sought to settle in the U.S.

I played hooky from policy for a few minutes to see where groups of court cases had settled in the U.S., and simply looked at which states had the largest number of persons from which nation. As you might expect, the largest number of people from Mexico, the Philippines, India, and many other nations were in California.

Similarly, New York drew the largest delegations from China and many European nations. I found some concentration understandable, like those from Portugal, Cape Verde Islands, and Brazil (the last two being former Portuguese colonies) all being attracted to Massachusetts, and probably to New Bedford and Falls River, where the Portuguese connections are strong.

Along comparable historic lines, Lithuanians and Poles are drawn to Illinois, and Cubans to Florida.

I also found some groupings I did not understand, like the concentrations of Moldavans in Florida, and Iraqis, Kenyans, and Nigerians in Texas.

Hopefully some graduate student has found this data source, and is comparing the spatial distribution of the 261,023 in this population with the distribution of the 11 million or so illegal aliens, generally. The smaller group is not a perfect sample of the larger population, of course, as many of them are making asylum claims, which the typical EWI (an alien who entered without inspection) cannot do.

It would make an interesting Ph.D. dissertation and might shed some light on the operations and impacts of our immigration policies.