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Central American Minors Adding to Immigration Backlog: 3 Year Wait for Hearings

The tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors apprehended illegally entering the U.S. over the past two years have added to the already substantial backlog of immigration court cases, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

A new report from the MPI released Thursday reveals that the massive influx of illegal immigrant children from Central America served to increase the wait time for deportation hearings to an average 1,071 days, or nearly three years.

From the beginning of FY 2014 through August 31, 2015, more than 102,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America and Mexico were intercepted at the U.S.-Mexico border attempting to illegally enter the U.S. Illegal immigrant children from Mexico apprehended at the border are supposed to be quickly returned home. Central American minors, however, are a different story.

Instead of being quickly returned to their home countries, Central American youths have been granted incredible access to the U.S. via a 2008 law which dictates that unaccompanied minors from noncontiguous countries are provided numerous protections, including being placed with a family member or sponsor in the U.S. and appearing before an immigration court.

In order to deal with the large influx of illegal immigrants entitled to a hearing, the Obama administration set up a “priority docket” to help accommodate the swell of new cases in the face of an already overloaded system.

According to the MPI’s report, however, while these cases have been deemed a “priority” many remain outstanding, with 61 percent of cases started since October 2013 remaining unresolved as of August. The report points out that the priority designation is only being applied to the initial hearing, meaning that future court dates are longer in the future and serving, again, to clog the system.

“Since the priority docket was implemented, the immigration court backlog for other types of cases has increased significantly, rising from a backlog of 344,230 cases in FY 2013 to 456,644 in FY 2015. As of August 2015, the average length of time from case filing to hearing date is 1,071 days,” the report, authored by MPI expert Sarah Pierce, reads.

Indeed, even when a case is fully adjudicated and the child is ordered deported, few are ever actually removed. Most simply remain in the U.S. as illegal immigrants.

“For example, in FY 2014, although 13,204 minors were ordered removed, only 1,863 were actually deported,” the report reads. “To a large degree, this discrepancy is likely due to the fact that most UAC removal orders are issued in absentia, after an individual fails to appear for his or her immigration court hearing. Specifically, 69 percent of all UAC removal orders since 2005 have been issued in absentia, including 81 percent of those issued between October 2013 and August 2015.”

Despite the high number of in absentia removal orders, the author notes that 78 percent of unaccompanied minors who do attend their hearings are granted some form of immigration relief.

While their cases work their way through the courts, or not if the youth fails to appear, the illegal immigrant minors are essentially resettled into communities across the U.S. While in the U.S. they are granted free education, English instruction, and subsidized school meals, which — as the report notes — has put a strain on many localities that end up bearing the brunt of the costs.

“Though the unaccompanied child population has been characterized as temporary in nature, it is likely that a large number of these children will live in the United States for a long period, perhaps even permanently,” the report concludes. “In the meantime, U.S. communities face significant challenges in meeting the needs of these children. This is particularly true of local school districts, which must meet an array of student needs within resource limitations.”

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