(CN) - The nation's immigration courts are buckling under a crushing backlog that has pushed the average time for a case to be heard past three years, a refugee advocacy group says.
Human Rights First says the problem is most pronounced in Texas and California where 89,000 and 81,000 immigration cases are pending, respectively.
"The number of cases pending in the Houston court grew from 6,423 to 36,136 between 2010 and 2016. With only six immigration judges on the bench in Houston, that court could see it caseload double by [fiscal year] 2019 without the addition of necessary judges and staff," the Washington D.C. and New York-based nonprofit said in a Tuesday statement announcing its study results.
The cause of the backlog is simple, the group says: "The number of cases pending before the court will soon exceed 500,000, far too many for a court staffed with only 254 immigration judges - a fraction of the number needed to timely address removal cases."
Congress took a small step towards fixing the problem in December when it approved funding for 55 new immigration judges as part of a spending bill for fiscal year 2016, Human Rights First said.
But experts say lawmakers have been overly focused on the front door of illegal immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the threat of terrorists entering the country so that, from 2001 to 2010, the number of Border Patrol agents at the border more than doubled to exceed 20,000.
Funding for apprehension and detention rose 300 percent between 2002 and 2013 and immigration court budgets increased only 70 percent during that time, according to a 2014 study by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
The case backlog has grown exponentially with the influx of asylum applications from some of the more than 67,000 Central Americans who fled corruption, poverty and gang violence in their home countries in 2014, crossed illegally into Texas and turned themselves in.
The Obama Administration directed courts to expedite their cases and quickly order them to be deported so other refugees wouldn't get the idea that the U.S. is offering asylum.
The directive means that other groups, like Mexicans, can sometimes wait more than five years before their cases are heard, Human Rights First said.
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