Federal immigration judges are on track to let 89,383 immigrants facing deportation remain — at least temporarily — in the U.S. this fiscal year, the highest number in at least the past 16 years, according to a report released this week.
The report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — a research organization at Syracuse University — also shows immigration judges have ordered deportations in 53 percent of their cases so far this fiscal year. That is the lowest percentage since at least 1998.
Immigration judges in Georgia rank second in the U.S. in the percentage of cases in which they are ordering removals this fiscal year at 82 percent, TRAC reports. Louisiana ranks first at 85 percent.
Experts say the changes in national deportation statistics are resulting partly from the Obama administration’s shift in immigration enforcement. The government has been giving special consideration to certain groups of people through a process called “prosecutorial discretion.” Among those getting special attention are families and immigrants who were brought here illegally as children.
Critics say this approach undermines Congress, which is now considering a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
“This policy of prosecutorial discretion has definitely run amok,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that advocates tighter immigration controls. “It has gone way beyond what anyone ever intended that concept to be. And so the result is really that the law right now has no teeth.”
Supporters say the Obama administration’s approach allows the government to spend more of its time and resources expelling violent criminals and those who pose a threat to homeland security.
“Unfortunately, when they don’t use prosecutorial discretion and they bring every single case that is available in for deportation, it really limits the ability to remove people who really probably should be removed,” said Joseph Rosen, an immigration attorney who teaches immigration law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.
Federal officials said Louisiana and Georgia rank high in percentages of cases that result in deportations partly because they are home to large immigration detention centers. Many of the illegal immigrants held there have been convicted of serious crimes that make them ineligible for relief from deportation.
The U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration judges and courts, declined to comment on TRAC’s figures.
The lower percentage of cases resulting in deportations nationwide this fiscal year partly stems from vacancies for immigration judges, said Dana Leigh Marks, a San Francisco-based immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, which advocates hiring more judges. Marks said about 55 of the 304 authorized positions for judges are unfilled because of budget constraints.
“The lack of sufficient numbers of judicial law clerks also contributes to this dysfunction,” she said. “Moreover, the prospect of furloughs in the upcoming fiscal year will only make the situation worse, perhaps dramatically so.”
The Obama administration set a record for deportations for the fiscal year that ended last September, expelling 409,849 people. That is the largest number removed in ICE’s history and is up 3 percent from the year before, when the previous record was set at 396,906.
TRAC projected this week that federal authorities will file papers in immigration courts seeking to remove more than 190,000 noncitizens from the U.S. this fiscal year. That estimate does not count illegal immigrants who are administratively deported by ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol, which is typically a much larger number.
Top five states for percentages of cases in which federal immigration judges have ordered deportations for fiscal year 2013*
Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
* Through August 2013