Immigration judges around the country are denying the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to deport illegal immigrants in record numbers, according to a new report.
Over the last 10 months, immigration judges opted against the department’s efforts to remove some 96,223 illegal immigrants, including criminals, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based nonprofit.
At this rate, TRAC estimates the number of illegal immigrants allowed to remain in the U.S. despite DHS attempts to remove them will surpass last year’s breaking number of 106,676. With the court’s protection, subjects can often remain indefinitely.
“It’s concerning to me that the immigration courts are becoming such a frequently used back-door route to green cards,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of Policy Studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC-based research institute, noting these cases will be nearly 10 percent of the green cards approved in 2016.
“Many of them arrived illegally, and are being awarded legal status simply because they managed to stay a long time and have acquired family members here.”
One in four of the illegal immigrants allowed to stay in the country despite DHS efforts to remove them this year is from Mexico, TRAC reported.
Another 44 percent were from the three Central American countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — where vast numbers of unaccompanied minors and women with children have crossed the border to seek asylum.
There are a number of reasons why an individual may be allowed to remain in the country, according to TRAC.
“… the judge can find that the government did not meet its burden to show the individual was deportable,” the report stated. “Or, the judge may have found that the individual was entitled to asylum in this country, or may grant relief from removal under other provisions of the law.
“A person also may be allowed to remain because the government requests that the case be administratively closed through the exercise of ICE's prosecutorial discretion, or for some other reason,” the report also stated.
The Phoenix federal Immigration Court had the highest percentage of non-citizens allowed to stay in the country over the objections of DHS officials.
“In more than four out of every five, or 82.2 percent of its 3,554 cases closed so far in 2016, the individuals were successful in their quest to remain in the U.S,” TRAC reported.
The New York Immigration Court was not far behind at 81.5 percent of the 16,152 non-citizen cases closed to date, followed by the Denver Immigration Court at 78.0 percent of its 831 cases.
Nationwide, there is a backlog of around 500,000 cases pending in the immigration courts, and as it grows, judges become more lenient, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
“This is by design,” Mehlman said. “The longer the attorneys draw out the cases, the better it is for their clients because the likelihood that they will get to stay in the country increases. It is also better for the immigration attorneys because they can charge more fees.
“From the judge’s perspective, because the courts are so backlogged, it is easier to let people stay in the country than actually try to remove them,” he said. “There are endless layers of appeal and no finality in it.”
On the opposite end of the scale, Oakdale, La., Lumpkin, Ga. and Napanoch, N.Y., Immigration Courts only allowed between 11.3 percent and 17.5 percent of the non-citizens slated for removal to remain in the U.S., TRAC reported.
There is a great deal of money spent, and government resources dedicated, to prosecute a removal case for detention, to monitor those who are released, for attorneys to prosecute removal cases and for the court personnel to conduct hearings, said Claude Arnold, a retired U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations.
Arnold believes the Obama administration has sent the message to immigration judges to push back when DHS attempts to enforce its rules regarding illegal immigrants. By law, they are subject to deportation when local, state or federal authorities cross paths with them, but several local governments refuse to cooperate in the removal process.
The administration of the immigration courts does not comment on third-party analysis of data, said Kathryn Mattingly, spokesperson for the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. However, she said the year prior to the TRAC report, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, immigration judges granted 48 percent of asylum applications, marking the third year in a row that percentage has decreased, falling from 56 percent in 2012.
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman