Nearly one in three migrant family members not held in detention fail to show up to their immigration court hearing, a sign of an overloaded system, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said at a press conference Friday.

With a backlog of 860,000 cases in the immigration court system, many of the people not held in detention don’t get a hearing for “four to five years,” said Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat recently briefed by Department of Homeland Security officials.

The ability to remain in the U.S. for that long while their case waits in a backlog creates a significant “pull factor” for migrants who are also facing poverty and violence in their home countries, Cuellar claimed.

“They get a notice to appear, el permiso,” he said. “And with that notice to appear, they can go anywhere. They’re not going to stay in Laredo, they’re not going to stay in San Antonio, the grand, grand majority of them. Because they’ve got family units in Chicago, Miami, New York.”

Cuellar contends that eliminating the immigration courts’ backlog and, in turn, the “pull factor”, would be much more effective at curbing illegal immigration than a border wall.

The one-in-three number Cuellar cited Friday is in line with recent Justice Department statistics over five years that show between 60 and 75 percent of migrants who are not detained do end up attending immigration court proceedings.

Cuellar’s statements come at a time of polarization on immigration to the U.S., with few people understanding the nuances of the immigration system, the asylum process, and the shift in border crossers from single men from Mexico to families from Central America.

“On one extreme, we have the president saying, ‘Put up a wall.’ It doesn’t stop these people,” Cuellar said. “Then you got some other folks that say don’t hold them, don’t hire other [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers, and all that.”

Increasingly, migrants are coming from Central America’s Northern Triangle – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Recently, approximately 73 percent of undocumented migrants came from these three countries, compared to 90 percent from Mexico in 2006, Cuellar said.

Currently, ICE is releasing migrants in Texas more than any other area of the southwest border, according to statistics Cuellar cited.

“The government doesn’t publicize this,” Cuellar said.

Of the 117,500 members of “family units” released from Dec. 21 to Tuesday, 51,500 were released in the “area of responsibility” of ICE’s field office in San Antonio, which includes all Texas border cities and a large swath of Central Texas.

That’s compared to 11,500 for San Diego’s field office, 20,000 for Phoenix, and 34,500 for El Paso.

Typically, migrants are put on buses and sent to cities on and near the border, where they’re often met by volunteers with nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities, who offer assistance.

Cuellar said there needs to be more immigration judges along the southern border who can more quickly process asylum seekers, either accepting their pleas or ordering them to be deported to their home countries.

“You hold them, you give them a hearing,” Cuellar said. “Put more judges on the border, give them a hearing and return them, and that takes away the pull factor that we have.”

Currently, the U.S. has approximately 350 immigration judges operating in approximately 60 courts.

With so many migrants relying on the asylum system, a border wall won’t do anything to help, Cuellar said. That’s because majority of those who cross illegally simply present themselves to Border Patrol or other immigration officials and ask for asylum, he said.

“The president is so fixated on a wall,” Cuellar said. “It’s not going to stop any of it.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.