Ordered to Immigration Court? Expect Long Waits as the Backlog Grows

Being summoned for immigration court proceedings can be terrifying, whether you are in the U.S. without documents or are a green card holder whom the U.S. government believes should be deported.

But whatever fears you may have about the process, there’s little need to fear that anything will happen overnight. This is particularly true if you have a defense to removal (and will not simply request “voluntary departure” at the earliest opportunity), which will justify holding a full (“merits”) hearing.

The reason? The immigration court system is getting more and more backed up with cases. According to statistics kept by TRACImmigration, by September of 2012 the backlog had grown to an all-time high of 325,044 cases nationwide. That’s 23.7% more people than were awaiting the conclusion of their court cases in September 2010.

This backlog has translated into waits of up to a year or more, depending on the type of case. The average wait has reached around 203 days to resolve cases that ended with removal orders and 781 days to resolve cases that ended with relief orders. (To check on details in your region, go to TRACImmigration’s “Immigration Court Backlog Tool.”

Part of the reason that such backlogs grow is that, if the person in proceedings (usually called the “alien”) has a lot of information to present to the immigration judge (such as personal testimony and that of witnesses), it’s unlikely that the merits hearing will be concluded in one day. And because the calendar is jam-packed, the judge will not, at the end of the first day’s hearing, say “Come back tomorrow.” Instead, the judge will put a new or “continued” court date on the calendar for many weeks or months into the future. (Expect weeks rather than months if you applied for asylum and were referred for immigration court proceedings.)

It can start to feel all very casual, as if the U.S. government really isn’t interested in finishing up your hearing. But don’t let this make you careless about keeping track of upcoming court dates, and arriving well in time. One missed court date and you could find yourself with an “order of deportation” on your record, and no further opportunities to defend yourself in court. See Nolo’s articles on “Immigrants in Deportation or Removal Proceedings” for more information.