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Backlog of pending cases at immigration courts hits record high

FILE: In this June 18, 2014 photo, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents work at a processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. Immigration courts backlogged by years of staffing shortages and tougher enforcement have been challenged by Central Americans arriving on the U.S. border fleeing violence back home.
FILE: In this June 18, 2014 photo, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents work at a processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. Immigration courts backlogged by years of staffing shortages and tougher enforcement have been challenged by Central Americans arriving on the U.S. border fleeing violence back home.
Eric Gay/AP

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A backlog in the nation's federal immigration courts has reached 500,051 cases, the highest number ever recorded, according to U.S. immigration officials Friday.

Los Angeles immigration courts have a current backlog of 49,550 pending cases, according to the federal Executive Office for Immigration Review. That number is nearing L.A. courts' fiscal year 2015 backlog of 50,842 waiting cases.

Last year, Los Angeles had the second-largest case backlog in the nation behind New York.

The growing backlog of cases stems from several reasons: few available immigration judges, immigration laws that have grown more complicated over the years, and changing migration patterns, the head of the immigration judges' union said Friday.

"There has definitely been a surge of immigrants, primarily young women with children and unaccompanied children, seemingly coming from the northern Triangle of Central America, which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador," said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and an acting immigration judge in San Francisco.

Recent arrivals now comprise about 29 percent of the pending cases before the immigration courts, Marks said.

Arrests of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally remain relatively low, but the shift in migration from countries other than Mexico makes a difference in the court caseload.

Unlike Mexican or Canadian nationals, Central Americans can't be turned away at the border. Once detained, Marks said, many claim credible fear of persecution in their home countries, where gang violence in recent years has driven many to seek asylum in the U.S.

Marks said with about 277 immigration judges around the country, it is impossible to keep up with the workload, meaning immigrants' cases can drag on for years.

The backlog has grown steadily; it was just under 300,000 cases nationwide in 2011, she said.

Federal officials said they are trying to address the backlog by beefing up staffing, and that Congress has already appropriated funds to hire 90 new judges and supporting staff.

Kathryn Mattingly, Executive Office for Immigration Review spokeswoman, wrote in an emailed statement: "The capacity for EOIR’s immigration judges is now 374 and the agency is steadily climbing closer to that number."

Pending legislation could bring the number of judges to 399, Mattingly said.