The huge influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern U.S. border will be back in the news on Wednesday, when the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the matter. And if the roster of witnesses is any indicator, you’ll hear a lot about how President Obama and lax border enforcement is to blame. But this is a much more complicated story. One issue that probably won’t get enough attention is the giant backlog in immigration court system. It’s among the least sexy parts of the immigration controversy, but also an extremely important one.
These backlogs mean long waits in or outside detention centers, even for the people who legally meet the requirements for asylum. For example, some children may qualify for protection because, in their home countries, they face threats of gang violence and drug trafficking.
So how bad are the waits? Over the years, U.S. has ramped up its spending on immigration enforcement—overall, a 300 percent increase since 2002. Meanwhile, the budget for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (which oversees the courts) grew only 70 percent. A Washington Post profile of one immigration judge showed he had less than 7 minutes to decide each case, no matter the complexity of the law.
The courts have a backlog of 367,000 cases since the start of the year of March 2014, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The average wait is 578 average days.
Obama has said he wants to “expedite” deportations, by sending more judges and lawyers to southwestern U.S. But there’s a problem: The personnel at his disposal aren’t enough to make more than a modest dent in the backlog. Over the long run, the immigration court system needs more staff—like the 255 more judges and support staff, double the number of existing immigration judges, the 2013 Senate bill on comprehensive immigration reform would have provided. But immigration reform can’t past the House Republicans right now, as Wednesday’s hearing should make clear.