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KFOX14Investigates: Immigration courts face staggering case backlog

KFOX14 Investigates discovered a staggering backlog of immigration cases nationwide. More than half a million cases are pending.

KFOX14 found that it can take years before an immigrant even sees a judge.

"It's a long process, it's very complicated and it takes a long time," Daniel Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez left Juarez and came to the United States in 1995, looking for work and a better life.

He has a current visa, but is now in the process of trying to get a green card. It's a process that has taken eight years so far, and he was told it could take 15-20 years total.

"With the kids, it affects them because they are older," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez is not alone; immigration experts said the courts are swamped.

"The backlog in the immigration system is decades long," said Robert Heyman, with Border Network for Human Rights.

KFOX14 investigates obtained data from Department of Justice showing nationwide that there are more than half a million backlogged cases.

Some cities have backlogs ranging from 20,000 to nearly 40,000.

In El Paso, there are more than 5,500 backlogged cases, with only two judges to hear them.

At the processing services center, there are four judges who hear the cases of those detained, and there are more than 700 of those cases pending.

"We have a broken legal immigration system," said Heyman.

Here's how it works. If an immigrant is picked up on immigration charges, they could held at the detention center before seeing a judge, or they could be released by immigration officials with a date to come back and appear in court.

Currently, those dates are almost two years away, explained immigration attorney Iliana Holguin.

"Right now, if you were to be released from custody and placed on the non-detained docket, your very first hearing wouldn't be until the end of 2018," said Holguin.

Holguin said that in that time frame, sometimes immigrants move, get married and start families, which can further complicate immigration decisions.

"There's so much that can happen while people are just waiting for their court dates to come up," Holguin said.

With renewed focus on immigration enforcement, the backlog could grow.

"Over the years, you've seen more and more funding to enforcement, to ICE, to CBP, to all of the enforcement wings. But then you don't see corresponding funding going to immigration courts, which have to hear all of these cases," Holguin said.

It's been a grueling and slow process for Rodriguez. His wife and three children are US citizens, but Rodriguez is still waiting for his case to be closed.

"It's something we have to live with. We have to do it," he said.

New Mexico doesn't have an immigration court, so all of its cases are handled here in El Paso.

President Trump has said that the federal hiring freeze does not apply to immigration judges.

However, for now, there hasn't been any talk of funding additional judges to handle the caseload.

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