American Bar Association Releases Grim Report for U.S. Immigration Courts

Nearly 1 million immigrants in the United States are facing a life or death situation, and less than 400 judges are available to help them. This backlog is creating a situation akin to handling death penalty cases in traffic court—and the American Bar Association is stressing the need for extensive immigration court reform in the United States as a result.

The ABA is advocating for a significant overhaul of the United States immigration system through a report that it released on Wednesday. The organization is calling the courts that handle immigration cases “irredeemably dysfunctional.”

In the report, the ABA claimed that U.S. immigration courts are “on the brink of collapse.” The report argues that the only way to fix systemic issues is through the creation of an Article I court. Like a bankruptcy court, this court would be an independent entity from the Justice Department dedicated to handling the cases of immigrants.

What the Report Found

The American Bar Association’s report found that the quality of the U.S. immigration court system has significantly declined since its last report in 2010. In the report, the ABA identified several problems with the system including a large backlog of cases, long wait times, a lack of funding, a possible political bias with the recent hiring of judges, and an over-reliance on teleconferencing for court proceedings.

As a remedy to these issues, the ABA listed over 100 recommendations for federal officials to implement. The report mentions that the ABA made many of these recommendations in 2010, but very few of them were implemented by federal officials.

"There have been virtually no new immigration laws addressing issues covered by the 2010 Report, and few of the 2010 recommendations were adopted by either the Obama or the Trump administrations," the new report stated.

A Problem That Can’t Be Ignored

The ABA says that, in addition to the absence of new laws, beneficial policies have been undermined to make the immigration system even worse than it was at the time of the 2010 report’s release. According to the association, “political and legal developments have exposed the fragility of our administrative systems.” The report laments what it calls “untenable backlogs” with efforts to reduce them being “ineffective” and “counterproductive.”

At the time of the ABA’s earlier report, U.S. immigration courts had 262,000 cases pending. In just eight years, the backlog has increased to more than 800,000 cases. To deal with this backlog, the ABA suggests creating an Article I immigration system. However, Justice Department officials have expressed opposition to the creation of this system, claiming that that Article I immigration courts would create problems with funding and logistics which would lead to more pending cases.

Instead of creating an Article I court, Justice Department officials suggest that employing an expeditious and uniform interpretation of the nation’s immigration laws to speed up pending cases. The ABA disagrees with this solution citing concerns over civil rights.

"While our current immigration system is confronting substantial challenges with respect to delays and backlogs, we would all agree, we must never lose sight of the tenets that underpin our legal system and reflect this country's values," said Wendy Wayne, chairman of the bar association immigration commission. "The rights that our laws provide to those subject to our immigration system, those cannot be sacrificed in the name of efficiency."