PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon immigrants who appeared in court and successfully sought the right to stay in the United States faced one of the longest delays in the nation to have their cases resolved, data from a statistical research group at Syracuse University show.
That’s despite a small reduction in the state’s immigration court backlog in the past two years.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Oregon came in second after Nebraska in the average length of wait time before a case was decided.
Immigrants in Oregon had to wait 1,178 days on average — or more than three years — to get their cases resolved in court, based on data in October of this year. That’s nearly double the 656-day average wait just five years ago.
Nationally, the average wait for a case to be resolved was 898 days as of October 2013, compared to 657 days five years ago, according to TRAC.
Other states with very high wait times included Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California.
The wait times only include cases of immigrants who were granted relief from deportation. They may include refugees, people who applied for asylum, those who overstayed their visas, border crossers, and others.
Backlogs of cases in immigration courts across the country have caused the growing delays in wait times. The backlogs were largely caused by stepped-up enforcement, which has placed more immigrants into deportation proceedings.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review — the U.S. Justice Department agency that runs immigration courts — declined to discuss why Oregon had the longest wait times. But spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said in a statement that the wait time is tied to the number of cases and the number of judges adjudicating them.
“The caseload in every immigration court, including in Portland, Ore., is tied directly to both the number of cases that the Department of Homeland Security files in the immigration courts and EOIR’s ability to complete those cases with available resources,” Mattingly said.
Some 345,000 cases are currently pending before immigration judges throughout the nation. Oregon has relatively few of those cases, about 2,730, but also has few judges to adjudicate them.
In recent years, a federal initiative dubbed prosecutorial discretion focused on reducing backlogs by asking immigration authorities to focus their attention on immigrants convicted of crimes. But the initiative barely made a dent.
The federal government has also hired dozens of new judges, including one in Portland in November 2010 — for a total of two judges in Oregon.
The move has helped the state somewhat, but not enough, said Prof. Susan Long, director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Although Oregon has been slowly chipping at its backlog since 2011, wait times have continued to increase. That’s because the rate of backlog reduction is too small to make a real difference for people who have been waiting for a day in court for several years, Long said.
“The backlog was a bad situation and you’re not going to dig yourself out overnight,” she said.
One reason it’s harder to reduce the backlog in Oregon, the research group’s data show, is that the state has the lowest number of deportations in the nation. Just 27.6 percent of Oregon’s immigration court cases result in deportation orders.
That means most immigrants in Oregon’s court are granted relief and those immigrants are allowed to legally stay in the country. But cases that ask for relief take longer to be adjudicated — leading to more delays.
Immigration lawyers say court delays can have both negative and positive impacts on immigrants.
Being in limbo can be emotionally and financially draining for individuals and families who have waited for years to see an immigration judge. But a longer delay can also give an immigrant more time to develop evidence and strengthen his case.
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