MIAMI — The nation's already backlogged immigration courts might soon be thrown into more havoc as roughly half of their 220 judges will be eligible for retirement next year.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation's 59 immigration courts, says the court already has 32 vacancies, contributing to a backlog of nearly 350,000 cases. Judges are overwhelmed, and immigrants with legitimate asylum claims can spend years in legal limbo.
Meanwhile, immigrants without legitimate legal claims remain in the country, while Americans foot the bill for them to be locked up longer.
The Executive Office says its average retirement rate is only 5 percent per year, which would mean 11 judges retiring in 2014. But Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, fears increasingly difficult conditions could push many to retire at the earliest opportunity.
''We are the forgotten stepchild. When Congress wants to fund immigration enforcement, they forget about the court,'' Marks said.
She said it takes months to vet judicial appointees and even longer for judges to get up to speed.
Congress has aggressively boosted funding for immigration enforcement and detention, with the Obama administration deporting some 360,000 people last year. Yet, the courts have seen few additional resources.
That is even as caseloads have jumped 15 percent since 2011, according to Juan Osuna, Executive Office for Immigration Review director , who testified before a congressional subcommittee.
As far back as 2008, a Georgetown Immigration Law Journal article surveying immigration judges found they exhibited more burnout ''than prison wardens and physicians in busy hospitals.'' The judges blamed the stress on the pressure to adjudicate so many cases — and decide the fate of so many lives — in such little time.
Unlike other federal judges, immigration judges fall under the Department of Justice and are employees of the executive branch, not the judicial branch. Their caseload varies.
In Honolulu, two immigration judges currently each have about 100 cases, while six judges in Houston have about 6,000 cases each, according to the nonprofit federal data tracker, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Immigration judges have no bailiff, no court reporter, and are not guaranteed a court clerk. Immigration judges also shoulder a much greater share of the legal research than other judges.