WASHINGTON (CN) - With nearly half a million cases to address, the Executive Office for Immigration Review has made strides in hiring judges who can make a dent in the backlog, that agency's head told Congress on Thursday.
Roughly 460,000 people are waiting for a judge's decision on their immigration status, and the average person going through the alien-removal process must wait nearly three years before a judge decides his case, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a written statement.
Juan Osuna, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, pegged that number at 457,106 in his opening Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.
Osuna told the committee the agency has hired 23 new judges since last November, with 24 more now going through the "final stages of the hiring process." Beyond that, the attorney general has tapped 25 additional judges to take benches on immigration courts in the near future, and those judges are now undergoing background and security checks.
"All of these new judges will greatly assist in reducing the pending caseload when they arrive in immigration courts over the coming months," Osuna said in a written statement.
Osuna attributed part of the backlog how the agency prioritizes cases. The agency has recently given preference to hearing cases involving unaccompanied minors, but also emphasizes those of people with a serious criminal history, Osuna said.
"We have to draw this line between making sure that those priority cases are taken care of first but also not neglecting those cases of others that have been waiting for a long time for their hearings," Osuna said.
Even though Congress has helped by providing more funding for the agency to hire judges, Osuna said it simply takes time to get quality people on the bench.
"Congressman, we have a very robust and multilayered process for hiring immigration judges," Osuna said. "It takes a long time. But we feel that it is necessary to do this carefully because these individuals, as you know, are exercising the attorney general's authority in immigration courtrooms around the country every single day. They are literally making life and death decisions, so we need to make sure that we are selecting the best candidates to serve as immigration judges."
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., was skeptical about the relief that hiring more judges will bring, pointing to "abuse and fraud" as a direct cause of the wait times.
Citing a Department of Justice report, Gowdy said the more judges the Executive Office for Immigration Review hires, the fewer immigration cases it hears.
"The bottom line is an inefficient and flawed adjudication process further diminishes our capacity as a nation to effectively deal with our broken immigration system," Gowdy said.
Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe went a step further, calling the backlog "de facto amnesty" for people in the country illegally.
Osuna pointed to a less nefarious cause of the backlog: it just takes longer for judges to decide cases than it did a decade ago. Recent court decisions and other changes to laws have forced judges to, for example, spend four hours on a case that used to take them one hour to wrap up, Osuna said.
But Osuna's plan for cutting down the backlog in immigration cases wasn't to speed up the system, but rather to in some cases slow it down.
The agency has pushed the time before an unaccompanied minor appears before a judge to up to 90 days, compared with the previous 21 days, Osuna said. This allows the minors more time to find legal representation, he added.
"We want speedy resolution of matters but you can go so fast that you end up causing delay," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said at the hearing to Osuna's agreement.