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Immigration judge says trial workloads and resource constraints are 'a problem'

Migrants try to stay warm as they wait in the rain after turning themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing over from Mexico in Fronton, Texas on May 12.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
Migrants try to stay warm as they wait in the rain after turning themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing over from Mexico in Fronton, Texas on May 12.

In the days before last week's end of the pandemic-era policy known as Title 42, around 10,000 people were crossing the southern border into the U.S. per day. That number had dropped nearly 50% by the weekend. But millions of cases involving asylum seekers are pending.

Mimi Tsankov, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, tells Morning Edition that although the Biden Administration pledges to hire more judges, "it will always be a problem trying to meet 2.1 million cases."

"If you do the math on that, even with the, I think, 700 judges that we have now or so, that's 3500 cases per judge," Tsankov explains. "That's assuming we didn't even get any new cases coming through the door, which, as we know, will not be the case. So it's a problem."

With the U.S. reverting back to rules including expedited removals and a new mandate that migrants must seek asylum in a nation they pass through before applying to enter the U.S., Tsankov tells NPR's A Martinez that immigration courts are still lacking the resources required to manage the current caseload.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On immigration judges' workload

A Martínez: Do you expect that backlog to get worse?

Mimi Tsankov: With those backlogs at an all time high of over 2.1 million cases currently pending, it's only going to get worse. Right now, the judges have about 3500 cases that they have on their individual dockets at the 69 courts around the country. And we're really concerned whether we're going to be able to meet the expectations of the administration in resolving these cases expeditiously.

On the factors they consider when deciding asylum cases

Mimi Tsankov: If they are trying to establish that they have would suffer political persecution, they might present a card that shows that they've been a member of a political party, they might show documents to establish maybe in the newspaper that they attended a rally and that there was some sort of government persecution of their activities in that rally. If it's a religious based persecution, they might show us a baptismal certificate or some sort of religious certificate of some type or their attendance at religious ceremonies.

On stresses on the immigration court docket

Mimi Tsankov: The immigration judges are hearing cases day in and day out, usually 3 to 4 trials a day. So with 3500 cases pending, we just don't get as much time as we'd like to be able to devote to each and every one of the cases.

A Martínez: Do things move quicker when someone has a lawyer with them?

Mimi Tsankov: We always encourage the respondents to seek representation because, as you know, they don't have the right to free representation in immigration court. Fortunately, there are a lot of non-governmental organizations that are providing some assistance to them. And one of the most recent initiatives that the administration just came out with was something called the Council for Children initiative that is in eight courts around the country.

On how asylum cases will be prioritized

A Martínez: The older cases, are they going to be handled first in front of the newer ones?

Mimi Tsankov: No. Well, it just depends. At this time, it'll depend on what the administration decides will be the priority and law enforcement priorities prevail.

Jan Johnson edited this story. contributed to this story

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Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.