Propelled by an unprecedented surge in border crossings, US immigration courts grapple with a historic backlog of 3 million cases
MIAMI (AP) — Eight months after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States, a couple in their 20s sat in an immigration court in Miami with their three young children. Through an interpreter, they asked a judge to give them more time to find an attorney to file for asylum and not be deported back to Honduras, where gangs threatened them.
Judge Christina Martyak agreed to a three-month extension, referred Aarón Rodriguéz and Cindy Baneza to free legal aid provided by the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami in the same courthouse — and their case remains one of the unprecedented 3 million currently pending in immigration courts around the United States.
Fueled by record-breaking increases in migrants who seek asylum after being apprehended for crossing the border illegally, the court backlog has grown by more than 1 million over the last fiscal year and it’s now triple what it was in 2019, according to government data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Judges, attorneys and migrant advocates worry that’s rendering an already strained system unworkable, as it often takes several years to grant asylum-seekers a new stable life and to deport those with no right to remain in the country.
“Sometimes hope already sinks,” said Mayra Cruz after her case was also granted an extension by Martyak because the Peruvian migrant doesn’t have an attorney.
“But here I’ve felt a bit safer,” added Cruz, who said she had to flee with only the clothes on her back with her partner and their children after repeated threats from gangs.
About 261,000 cases of migrants placed in removal proceedings are pending in the Miami court — the largest docket in the country. That’s about the same as were pending nationwide a dozen years ago, said Syracuse University professor Austin Kocher.
The backlog includes migrants who have been in the United States for decades and were apprehended on unrelated charges, but most are new asylum seekers who declare a fear of persecution if they are sent back, he added.
Backlogged courts, administered by the Justice Department, often get little attention in immigration debates, including in current Senate negotiations over the Biden administration’s $110 billion proposal that links aid for Ukraine and Israel to asylum and other border policy changes.
When migrants are apprehended by U.S. authorities at the border, many are released with a record of their detention and instructions to appear in court in the city where they are headed. That information is passed on from the Department of Homeland Security to the Justice Department, whose Executive Office for Immigration Review runs the courts, so that an initial hearing can be scheduled.
“They’re just being released without any idea of what comes next,” said Randy McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services for the Archdiocese of Miami, which has seen hundreds of thousands of migrants join its diaspora communities.
So many migrants go to them for advice that, in the last couple of years, they’ve largely switched to teaching how to self-petition and represent themselves before judges.
In the mid-2010s, families and children from Central America seeking asylum became the majority of illegal crossers at the U.S. southern border. In response, the Obama administration as well as the Trump and Biden administrations started prioritizing some categories of cases they want solved faster to reflect enforcement priorities.
But courts are ineffective deterrents to people desperate to flee their countries, and judges say shuffling cases around only adds to the chaos as they wade through dozens if not hundreds of cases a day.
At the courthouse in Miami last week, one judge went looking for a Haitian family who hadn’t shown up, then granted an order of deportation in absentia, just as she had for a Colombian family who also failed to appear at their hearing immediately before.
Another judge found that a Cuban mother, then a Venezuelan man had applied for other forms of protection special to their countries and dismissed their cases, telling them they were done with the court. The woman broke into grateful tears. The man, who had come more than 200 miles for the minutes-long hearing, mumbled “God bless you” in Spanish.
And a steady stream of migrants went to find Catholic Legal Services — one couple directed there by the judge to figure out how to present in court their video of the gang murder that had forced them to flee.
Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat contributed from San Diego, California.