Immigration Courts, Broadly Criticized, Get Congress Scrutiny

  • Lawmaker seeks a legislative fix to ‘untenable’ system
  • Backlogs include almost 1.6 million cases, report finds

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House lawmakers are poised to review the U.S. immigration court system this week amid staggering case delays and complaints about political meddling.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship meets Thursday for a hearing on the independence of the system, which handles asylum claims, deportations, and other enforcement issues. The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review oversees the network that spans dozens of courts and hundreds of immigration judges across the country.

Years-long case backlogs are only getting worse, and critics say the courts have been mismanaged and sometimes politicized. During President Donald Trump’s administration, for example, Democrats accused the Justice Department of injecting politics into immigration courts by using quotas and changing hiring practices.

Republicans point to the record numbers of migrants encountered by U.S. border officials since Joe Biden, who campaigned on a more humane treatment of migrants, became president a year ago.

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Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who leads the subcommittee, has called the current system “untenable.” In a 2020 hearing, she recommended an overhaul that would give immigration judges more independence and resources.

(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), seen at a December 2021 committee event, will lead a hearing on immigration courts on Jan. 20 and is planning legislation to change the system.

Lofgren is working on legislation to modify the immigration court system. Her office declined to provide additional details about the proposal or the scope of Thursday’s hearing.

Witnesses include representatives from the American Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association, the National Association of Immigration Judges, and the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

The court backlog is at its worst ever, with almost 1.6 million immigration cases pending, a new report from Syracuse University’s nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse said. The pileup has grown quickly during the Biden administration because of the number of new cases added and lingering Covid-19 disruptions to the system, the analysis said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at; Robin Meszoly at

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