Immigrants may have to wait longer to have their cases heard in immigration courts in 2014. That’s because more than 100 immigration judges will be eligible for retirement next year and some may take the opportunity, according to the Associated Press.
As of 2013, 220 immigration judges presided over 59 immigration courts and they are still wading through a backlog of 350,000 cases. Thus far, there are 32 vacancies and through natural attrition, about ten immigration judges retire every year. But because of a variety of factors, retirement-eligible immigration judges may find it difficult to stay.
In the 2013 fiscal year, immigrants waited an average of 562 days for their cases to be heard, a stressful endeavor put on immigrants, some of whom are detained behind bars until their court date, and others struggling to make ends meet while their applications are being reviewed. As an example, asylum seekers weren’t allowed to legally work even after their cases had been pending for more than six months. But because the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice reached an agreement in April, asylum seekers can now apply for employment authorization if their cases have languished for more than six months.
One factor that drives judges to retire is the emotional toll of the job. According to a 2009 University of California at San Francisco study, immigration judges face greater job burnout and secondary traumatic stress than prison wardens and doctors. Another factor is that new judges would inherit the backlog of cases. As of November, the Houston immigration court still had a backlog of 16,647 pending cases. And a third factor is that those judges are burdened by budgetary constraints. Congress earmarks funding for immigration enforcement and detention through appropriations bills, but it doesn’t do the same for immigration courts, which has seen a 15 percent spike in the number of cases.
Out of 50 new immigration judges hired in 2010, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) was only able “net an increase of 36 immigration judges.” Even if they successfully hire new immigration judges to replace the ones that retire, they might be short staffed. Immigration judges don’t have bailiffs, court reporters, and aren’t guaranteed court clerks.
Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says that it’s understandable if those judges choose to retire at the earliest possibility. In an interview with the Associated Press, Marks said, “We are the forgotten stepchild. When Congress wants to fund immigration enforcement, they forget about the court.”
The approved Senate comprehensive immigration bill appears moribund in the Republican-controlled House, but it would have provided appropriations to fund the hiring of 225 new immigration judges and more support staff. But until a similar resolution is passed, taxpayers will have to continue to shoulder the $160 per night cost of immigrant detainees who have to “spend more time behind bars waiting for their cases to be resolved.”