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If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were to “begin the process of removing millions” of immigrants living in the country without legal permission, it would exacerbate a backlog in the immigration courts, where some people now have to wait for as long as 10 years before their cases are heard, says Northeastern law professor Hemanth Gundavaram.

The ICE raids to deport ‘millions’ are off for now. But immigration courts still face a challenge.

If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were to “begin the process of removing millions” of immigrants living in the country without legal permission, it would exacerbate a backlog in the immigration courts, where some people now have to wait for as long as 10 years before their cases are heard, says Northeastern law professor Hemanth Gundavaram.(Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were to “begin the process of removing millions” of immigrants living in the country without legal permission, could the courts handle it?

President Donald J. Trump declared Saturday that his previously announced plans to begin deportations would be delayed for two weeks  so that Congress could work out a compromise on immigration policy.

But if the president decides to move forward, Hemanth Gundavaram, a Northeastern law professor who co-directs the university’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, says it would exacerbate a backlog in the immigration courts, where some people now have to wait for as long as 10 years before their cases are heard.

ICE officials have said that the operation would target immigrants in the interior of the country who have received final orders to leave or have missed their court dates. Officials added that the agency would not have the capacity to be able to deport “millions” of people, as Trump had indicated.

Gundavaram, who is a practicing immigration attorney, says that while the ICE operation described by Trump would affect immigrant communities first and foremost, it would also stand to have another consequence: adding to the caseload of  immigration lawyers already overburdened with cases.

That’s because the deportation process in the U.S. is a judicial process. People facing deportation can apply for a green card, appeal their deportation order, or apply for readmission after deportation, among other options. Each of these is a legal procedure.

“In general, there’s a big disparity between the number of people who need attorneys and the number of immigration attorneys out there,” he says. “It’s difficult to help everyone who needs it and raids like this, if they happen, mean more people caught up in removal proceedings, making it difficult for all the attorneys who are already working long hours.”

Reducing this disparity is already a difficult task, Gundavaram says, but there are ways to help reduce the backlog in immigration courts.

One way to solve the disparity is to hire more immigration judges and lawyers, Gundavaram says. Other solutions, he says, would require an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws.

Gundavaram says that giving amnesty and a path to citizenship to more immigrants could help reduce the backlog in immigration courts. This is something Congress has considered, too. This month, the House passed a bill that would offer a path to citizenship for more than 2 million undocumented immigrants.

Critics of the bill say it would “reward” people who entered the country unlawfully with citizenship. Among those opposed to the bill is U.S. Rep. Douglas A. Collins, a Republican from Georgia, who told The Washington Post that it would “worsen the border crisis by incentivizing more people to cross our borders illegally in hopes of getting a piece of the amnesty pie.”

The increased demand upon the country’s legal immigration system has had an effect on law schools, as well. Gundavaram says he’s noticed a recent increase in the number of Northeastern law school students who want to study immigration law—a trend that’s echoed in law schools throughout the country.

The Immigrant Justice Clinic at Northeastern gives law students the chance to represent clients seeking asylum and learn about the rules governing U.S. immigration.

“As a teacher, it keeps me going,” Gundavaram says. “A lot of immigration attorneys are having a hard time right now. It feels like every minute you’re up against—no pun intended—a wall.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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