The United States has again broken its previous record for the number of immigration cases waiting to be resolved by a federal court judge. There were nearly 248,000 cases pending by the middle of June this year, a whopping 33 percent higher than where the figure stood at the end of fiscal year 2008. The latest numbers come courtesy of researchers at Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which specializes in federal law enforcement statistics.

TRAC also found that the average length of time it’s taken to conclude immigration cases during 2010 reached 459 days, a number higher than any year since at least 1998. By state, California remains the leader in average wait times with more than 640 days. One hearing location in San Diego posted an extraordinary average wait time of nearly 1,300 days, or to put it another way, more than three years.

Experts attribute the enormous backlog of immigration cases to a list of possible factors. First, the number of judges available to hear immigration cases is declining, and as of March, one out of every six such positions was unfilled. Just five immigration judges have been sworn in since that time. “[The federal government] still has a very long way to go to fill existing judge vacancies,” according to TRAC.

Second, immigration enforcement in one region of the country over another may be changing, which could lead to a greater number of cases that judges are suddenly required to contend with. New proceedings have actually gone down somewhat during the 2010 fiscal year nationwide. But new matters that required attention from an immigration court reached all-time highs in 2009.

Individual courts in Texas, Nevada, Illinois and Arizona, meanwhile, saw the number of pending cases accumulate rapidly during the first none months of this year, from 37 percent in Phoenix to as high as 67 percent in Harlingen, Texas.

Illustrating the amount of pressure faced by politicians in Washington on the issue of illegal immigration, a bill pumping $600 million into increased border security easily passed both the House and Senate last week before Obama signed it Aug. 13.

The White House first requested more money for border security from Congress earlier this summer when Obama committed to sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest following complaints by high-profile elected officials that the federal government wasn’t doing enough there. The money will also be used to build new Border Patrol stations and acquire unmanned surveillance aircraft.

But as we’ve noted before, hiring personnel to fight drug traffickers and illegal border crossers costs taxpayers a fortune. After factoring in background checks, fitness evaluations, night-vision goggles, uniforms, mobile radios and more, Customs and Border Protection estimated last year that the cost of each new hire is about $160,000. If correct, that would put the price tag of taking on 1,000 new border-patrol agents at $160 million.

Under former President Bush, the number of law-enforcement officers carrying out patrol activities on the border grew to nearly 19,000 nationally by April 2009 from about 12,000 just a few years before. Bush also sought to dramatically scale back the federal government’s policy of releasing people charged with immigration violations until a court hearing could be held. That led to a jump in the expense needed to keep them in detention.

The Department of Homeland Security has in addition already spent $800 million on the troubled SBInet program, an attempt to line the nation’s border with surveillance devices capable of alerting authorities to the presence of border crossers. But SBInet has so far failed to meet expectations and is under review.

Senior homeland security officials will face the difficulty of finding reliable border agents as they embark on a new recruitment drive. The department’s watchdog inspector general had 230 corruption cases under its purview last year, in part because drug traffickers have succeeded at bribing some border agents. The FBI had more than 110 border-related cases during that time. Customs and Border Protection has added over 200 internal affairs agents since 2006.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke with NewsHour on PBS last week about border security. During the interview she was asked to comment on a statement made by Arizona’s two GOP senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, who said the latest measure from Congress “is a start.” They complained nonetheless that it still didn’t include enough for more customs inspectors in some parts of their home state. Her response:

What we want to make sure that we do is, don’t just throw money at the border, but do things that make sense, do things that are efficient, and establish control along that whole 2,000-mile-long border. And as we do that, let’s make sure that we’ve got the right mix – the right mix of manpower, the right mix of technology, the right mix of infrastructure.

Figures in chart courtesy Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.