WASHINGTON Immigration courts are inefficient and beset by delays, falling behind in processing proposed deportations in recent years despite having more judges hearing these cases, the Justice Department's inspector general said on Thursday.
The courts completed 324,000 proceedings in the 2006 fiscal year but only 287,000 in the 2010 fiscal year, a report from Inspector General Michael Horowitz said. The number of immigration judges grew from 211 to 238 during that time period, according to the report.
The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the immigration courts, "should take all possible steps to maximize the use of the resources it has received," the report said.
The immigration office said in response that it has not had the money to study ways to improve efficiency but that it will begin a study soon.
The office also said it would give new training to judges on how to respond to foreign nationals' requests for case delays - a major cause of slower proceedings, according to the report.
Numbers in 2011 showed improvement, the immigration office said, but the inspector general's office said it has not verified those statistics.
Immigration judges hear deportation cases in about 120 locations throughout the United States.
The judges put a priority on cases in which a foreign national is detained for a crime or other reason - a priority that shows up in the time it takes to finish a deportation case, the report said.
Cases in which the foreign national is detained lasted on average 48 days, while cases in which the person was not detained went on for an average of 526 days, according to a sample of cases reviewed by the inspector general.
"Cases, especially those for non-detained aliens, can take long periods to complete, which crowds court calendars and delays processing of new cases," the report said.
The non-detainee cases included people asking for asylum.
The issue of illegal immigration is hotly debated in the United States. There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, most of them Hispanics.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who were brought into the United States as children will be able to avoid deportation and get work permits under an order in June by President Barack Obama.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Will Dunham)