Homeland Security opened 444,000 new immigration cases over the past year, sending the immigration court backlog soaring to nearly 1 million, officials announced Thursday.
Judges ruled on cases at a near-record pace, clearing 275,000 cases in fiscal year 2019. That’s 80,000 more cases than the previous year.
But the surge of border crossers, many of lodging complex though likely bogus claims of asylum, has left the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which hears immigration cases, struggling to keep up.
EOIR ended the fiscal year with 987,000 cases pending, up from 789,000 cases a year earlier.
The immigration courts are separate from the criminal justice system. They hear deportation cases and other immigration benefit matters, such as ruling on claims of asylum.
EOIR, which is part of the Justice Department, had hoped to make a dent in the numbers this year.
It hired hundreds of new immigration judges and announced a new performance system that pushed immigration judges to meet a benchmark for cases completed.
Though the policy drew fierce pushback from immigrant-rights activists, it appears to have worked, said James McHenry, EOIR’s director.
But the surge of illegal immigrant families at the border, who thanks to lax U.S. policies were mostly released into the interior with future court dates, worked to send the caseload higher.
“Our immigration courts are doing everything in their power to efficiently adjudicate immigration cases while respecting due process rights, but efficient adjudication alone cannot resolve the crisis at the border,” Mr. McHenry said. “While EOIR is doing an unprecedented job adjudicating cases fairly and expeditiously, the nearly one million case backlog will continue to grow unless Congress acts to address the crisis at the border.”