Without much fanfare, last month the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, the agency that oversees the nation’s immigration courts, released its important annual compilation of statistical data. Though the report isn’t the only source of information about the immigration court system, it is a hugely valuable glimpse into the front-line adjudication of migrants’ attempts to remain in the United States. The fiscal year 2015 report, released in April 2016, reveals an immigration court system that continues to process hundreds of thousands of removal cases with glaring procedural faults.
As it has in recent years, the immigration courts completed well over 250,000 matters last year. The 262,293 cases completed in FY 15 is up from the previous year’s 248,689 and FY 13’s 265,341. Courts in the nation’s largest cities—Los Angeles (18,105) and New York City (17,666)—topped the list. Sitting far above its population size, the immigration court in tiny Pearsall, Texas, population 9,852, completed 10,075 matters. That is, the judges at the Pearsall immigration court closed more cases than there are people in Pearsall—a testament to the important role that Pearsall’s South Texas Detention Facility currently occupies in the federal government’s immigration policing efforts. Almost all of Pearsall’s work resulted from new removal cases or requests for bond by imprisoned migrants. Nationally there were many more removal cases initiated than requests for bond.
Continuing a troubling trend, many people whose fates were determined in FY 15 had to undergo the immigration court process without the benefit of legal representation. Only 58 percent of migrants (105,619 cases) whose cases were completed in FY 15 were represented, meaning that fully 42 percent (75,956 cases) had to navigate the labyrinthine immigration law regime alone. Lest anyone believe that representation is irrelevant, the best available evidence suggests otherwise. A recent study by Ingrid V. Eagly and Steven Shafer found that migrants who obtained representation were substantially more likely to obtain relief from removal or convince an immigration judge to terminate removal proceedings. Ingrid V. Eagly & Steven Shafer, A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Courts, 164 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 1, 50 fig.14 (2015). Though the Justice Department’s report doesn’t venture into the utility of legal counsel, it does point out that ending up in immigration court proceedings doesn’t necessarily mean ending up with a removal order. Almost 20,000 migrants (19,626) obtained relief from removal. Another 28,370 had their cases terminated for one reason or another. In other words, almost 50,000 people managed to win their removal cases.
With 457,106 cases pending at the start of the FY 16, this is likely to be another busy year for the immigration courts.
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