Average wait times dip but may grow again with judge's departure.
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The number of pending immigration cases backlogged in Utah rose slightly for the fiscal 2012, mirroring a national trend of sluggish movement through the system, according to a report released Thursday.
For fiscal 2012, the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse showed Utah had 1,217 cases awaiting a resolution that could end up in the deportation of an illegal immigrant. The backlog is up nearly 4 percent from the 1,173 cases in fiscal 2011.
But the report also found cases in the Beehive State are being resolved more quickly as average waits for processing dipped to 513 days compared with 534 days the previous year.
Utah's backlog and wait times may increase, however, with the immigration court in Salt Lake County losing a judge.
Immigration Judge Dustin Pead is scheduled to depart at month's end to become a federal magistrate, leaving Judge William Nixon as the county's only immigration judge.
Elaine Komis, spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said video teleconferencing will help Nixon handle Pead's caseload.
The Utah cases are a sliver compared with the numbers nationwide, where 314,147 cases clog the system. That represents an all-time high for backlogged cases.
Thursday's report also showed waits for cases shot up from an average of 489 days in fiscal 2011 to 526 days in fiscal 2012.
TRAC co-director Susan Long said the backlog is "surprising," given the emphasis by the Obama administration on prosecutorial discretion in prioritizing deportations by focusing on the most serious criminals who are in the country illegally.
That policy took effect last year, but immigration lawyers have complained that it hasn't manifested itself in clearing out low-priority cases.
"I believe prosecutorial discretion has not been adopted with the fervor we had anticipated," Salt Lake City immigration lawyer Aaron Tarin said. "It is being underutilized in terms of terminating proceedings that don't need to be clogging up the court."
But Utah's immigration court like most in the country is also jammed with illegal immigrants labeled under the criminal/national security threat or terrorist grouping.
In fiscal 2012, there were 106 such cases awaiting resolution in Utah, down from 117 the previous year. That's the lowest number since 2006, when there were 93 in that category.
Nationally, there were 24,926 in that group.
Komis said the Executive Office for Immigration Review couldn't speak directly to the reasons for the overall backlog but noted "immigration courts completed more than 15,000 additional proceedings in fiscal year 2011 than in fiscal year 2010."
In Utah, Mexicans accounted for the bulk of cases tied up in immigration court with 790, while Guatemala was a distant second, with 51. Nevada had a record 3,360 cases clogging its congested system, up from 2,869 in the previous fiscal year, while Colorado saw its backlog fall to 7,686 after peaking at 7,846 in fiscal 2011.
Nevada processed cases faster, with an average wait of 392 days. Colorado dragged them out to 578 days.
Arizona remained one of the most backlogged states, with 12,197 pending cases.
Utah's immigration backlog
Fiscal 2012 • 1,217
2011 • 1,173
2010 • 1,231
2009 • 1,061
2008 • 972
2007 • 976
Source • Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse