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Rumors that Central American immigrants caught at the U.S. border will be granted a free pass to stay in the country are not entirely unfounded. At least in practice.

As the number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border increases, the already overburdened U.S. immigration courts are being swamped with an influx of new cases. The result of that growing backlog means the average immigrant apprehended at the border has to wait more than a year and a half for their case to be resolved. For a population of people who are used to living day-to-day, a year and a half feels like a long time. And some don’t mind the wait.

The court backlog, which now averages 577 days — up 40 percent from a decade ago — could be fueling rumors in Central America that immigrants won’t be deported.

An immigration reform bill passed in the Senate a year ago would have given a funding boost to the struggling court system. The bill had the support of President Obama, but Republican leadership in the House of Representatives refused to vote on comparable legislation, killing the effort.

So in effect, apprehended families — mostly mothers and children — have also been getting a reprieve of sorts. The federal government only has one detention center equipped to hold immigrant families, so many who are caught at the border are being released with a notice to appear before an immigration judge at a future date, according to federal officials. An Obama administration official told ABC News that 300,000 unaccompanied children still have pending cases in immigration courts.


The resolution of those cases could be more than a year away, according to statistics on court wait times.

How overwhelmed are immigration courts? Here’s an idea:

A growing problem

The backlog of pending removal cases more than doubled from fiscal year 2002 to 2014, going from 166,061 to 363,239, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.


The number of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans in pending immigration cases have all increased dramatically, even though TRAC data shows that Central Americans have been processed faster than people from other countries.

Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse

Lengthy wait times

The average wait time for people in removal proceedings increased from 413 days in fiscal year 2002 to 580 days as of this month. Some people wait even longer than that.


Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse

More border security, less follow up

From 2002 to 2013, funding for immigration enforcement operations grew by 300 percent, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). But during that same period, funding for the judicial body that handles immigration cases (Executive Office of Immigration Review, or EOIR) increased only 70 percent.


Source: Migration Policy Institute

What about the no shows?

So how many people skip their day in court? It’s hard to say for certain.

According to data from federal immigration courts, 26 percent of cases were resolved in absentia in the 2013 fiscal year, meaning the defendant did not report to court for the hearing. But those figures don’t account for all no-shows. A judge can close an immigration case without issuing an in absentia order.


Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at MPI, has looked at several studies and thinks the number could be higher.

“I think it’s safe to say 30 to 40 percent don’t show up, possibly more than that,” he said. Rosenblum doesn’t cite recent data - one study by the Vera Institute used stats from 2000 - but it may be the best estimate available.

There could be legitimate reasons to miss a court date; a person might not receive the notice to appear, for example. But there’s also an incentive to skip out if you’re afraid you might be deported.


One option, floated by Democratic lawmakers last week, is to use ankle bracelets to supervise detainees who have been released. Using limited data in 2009, federal immigration officials found that an approach that used electronic monitoring, home visits and self-reporting to authorities had a 96 percent success rate.

*Federal data refers to fiscal years, running from October 1 to September 30

Graphics by Sergio Molina

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.