At immigration courts, a growing backlog

Said Syrian Amira Elamri: “There is no certainty in our case. We’re still pending.”
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2015
Said Syrian Amira Elamri: “There is no certainty in our case. We’re still pending.”

Pending. That’s been the status of Amira Elamri’s asylum case for more than three years.

Elamri, her husband, and their two children fled war-torn Syria in 2013, moving first to Lebanon before arriving legally in Massachusetts in March 2014. They applied for asylum, were granted temporary permission to stay, and were given work permits. So far, however, they have no idea how long they’ll be allowed to remain in the United States. Or even if they will.

“There is no certainty in our case,” she said. “We’re still pending.”


A significant and growing backlog of immigration cases has left nearly half a million immigrants in limbo, deprived some families of income, and torn at the fabric of others, according to a new report by the US Government Accountability Office.

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And with calls for increased enforcement under the Trump administration, it will probably get worse. Already this year, there has been a nearly 38 percent increase in arrests for immigration violations when compared with the same time last year.

The logjam has more than doubled over the past decade, growing nationally to more than 500,000 cases in 2016. In Boston, there was a backlog of 11,271 immigration cases in 2015, up about 15 percent from 2012, according to the report.

“As a result, some respondents’ cases may take years to resolve,” government auditors said in the June 1 report on the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration court system.

Myriad factors have contributed to the growing backlog, including a surge in new cases in 2014, many involving unaccompanied minors, a lack of translators, the increasingly complex nature of the cases, recent decisions by the US Supreme Court, and lawsuits by immigrants.


Additionally, the number of immigration judges has not kept pace with the increase in cases, despite the court system’s hiring of 35 new judges from 2006 to 2015, the report said. There were 289 immigration judges nationwide in 2016, but almost 40 percent of them are eligible for retirement, the report said.

Congress has allocated funds for the immigration court system to hire more judges, but an arduous — and slow — hiring process keeps fewer judges from sitting on the bench than needed, the report said. It took an average of 742 days — or just over two years — to hire a new judge between 2011 and August 2016, the report said. The hiring delay was attributed to a variety of reasons including a federal hiring freeze, delays with background checks, and human resources staffing shortages.

“This is a problem that has existed for a long time and really reflects that our deportation system is not being used to target the worst-of-the-worst as some people may think,” said Adriana Lafaille, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The volume of people that are put in the system just creates years of uncertainty and suffering for families. It’s a system that is overwhelmed.”

It was a beleaguered system even before President Trump rescinded guidelines set by his predecessor that prioritized arresting the most serious criminal offenders over other immigrants in the country illegally.

Cases pending in the nation’s 58 immigration courts include everything from people facing deportation for overstaying a visa or illegally entering the country to those seeking asylum for children entering the country without their parents. There are individuals and families in custody while their cases are pending, and others who are free on bond but must check in with immigration officials.


Lafaille said the ACLU began representing clients in a 2013 class-action suit that argued they should be released from custody while fighting deportation. In 2014 the plaintiffs won the right to be free on bond while their cases were pending.

“There can be years of back and forth between the immigration courts and the board of immigration appeals and the circuit courts,” she said.

Immigration advocates say the delays breed uncertainty, which increases anxiety and fear, especially among those seeking asylum and families that have members with different immigration statuses.

“The fact that the federal government doesn’t have a priority anymore in terms of people who are in deportation . . . it’s creating very high anxiety among families, especially mixed-household families,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Not all of them are authorized to work, and that really creates a huge, huge issue. They have families to feed.”

Elamri and her husband, Bassel Aldehneh, said the decision to leave Syria wasn’t easy. He owned a travel agency and she was a schoolteacher when the civil war started there in 2011. Their children, who are now 7 and 11, “became experts, actually, at knowing what kind of weapon was being used,” she said.

The family moved nine times before arriving in the United States, a place Elamri said their son now says “is not a home away from home” but “literally my home.”

But they don’t know if they’ll be able to stay.

“We are proving ourselves as taxpayers, as successful workers, useful to the community,” said Aldehneh, who works for a travel company while his wife works as a teacher’s aide. “But we just don’t know. The timing is a big issue for asylums.”

It can take up to three years for those seeking asylum to be granted the necessary hearings, leaving them, in some instances, separated from spouses and children who remain in perilous situations as they wait, according to Anita Sharma, executive director of the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project.

Sharma said that those caught in the system “feel their lives are in limbo.”

“The delays are incredibly stressful for clients,” she wrote, adding that there are “increased mental health risks to asylum-seekers as they wait — for years — to have their day in court to present their asylum cases.”

Immigration judges must adjudicate what are essentially life-and-death cases in what is akin to traffic court, Lafaille said, referencing an often-used comparison by Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

“That really captures the strain that judges are put under with this tremendous backlog,” she said.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.