Immigration judges dismissed nearly a third of all deportation requests from July to September, even as the Obama administration sent a record number of illegal immigrants back to their home countries.
In New York City alone, judges dismissed 70 percent of all deportation requests, according to a new report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research center at Syracuse University. Portland, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia also had dismissal rates above 50 percent.
The overall rate of deportation dismissals was closer to 25 percent only a year ago.
So why are judges suddenly refusing to deport in more cases?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) refused to release detailed data on the cases, leaving the report's authors without much to go on. But they conclude that, based on the broad categories judges cited as they dismissed pending cases, ICE officials were referring high numbers of detainees for trial who should not have been deported under existing immigration laws.
On average last year, it took judges 460 days to process a case. In cases finding no grounds for deporting detainees, that average was 424 days; in some instances, those suspects were kept in special detention centers over the full period that their cases awaited resolution.
Mark Krikorian, the head of the pro-enforcement think tank the Center for Immigration Studies, tells The Upshot he thinks the uptick may just be "a natural fluctuation in the system," and thinks TRAC is wrong in concluding that ICE is seeking to deport legal immigrants.
There may be another reason for the high rate of dismissal: Judges are fighting the increasingly unmanageable caseloads they shoulder under the regime of more aggressive immigration enforcement by dismissing weaker cases. In fiscal year 2010, a whopping 261,083 immigration cases were awaiting resolution. The backlog has soared 40 percent since 2008, TRAC found.
Under the current crushing backlog, each immigration case only gets heard in court for 70 minutes, according to another TRAC study. Some are heard in "mass hearings" of dozens of people, which critics say amounts to "assembly-line" justice.
ICE says its priority is to deport dangerous criminals, but Crystal Williams, who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told The Upshot that noncriminals are being dumped into the system and deported at record rates.
About a quarter of those deported since 2008 under the federal "Secure Communities" program, which uses fingerprints to scour local jails for illegal immigrants, had no criminal records, the Wall Street Journal reported. An illegal immigrant with no criminal record could get picked up for a minor infraction, fingerprinted, and then deported by ICE — even after the charges were dropped and the suspect was released.
"One of the problems with the program is it's dumping people into the system who probably should not be there," Williams said. "People who have been picked up for [driving with] a broken headlight get pushed into the system and get picked up. The immigration courts are getting filled with people like that."
But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano touts the program as a success, since it has resulted in a 70 percent increase in the number of criminals deported from the country.
To battle the overloaded courts, the Justice Department just this week announced it had sworn in 23 new immigration judges, a 10 percent increase of the total corps of judges now presiding in immigration courts.
(Photo of fingerprinting procedure, part of an immigration status check in Arizona jail: AP)