A U.S.-based research institute says a judge shortage means immigrants facing deportation or other legal procedures in the United States are waiting longer than ever for a hearing.

Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse said in a report Friday people wait an average of 439 days for their hearings.

In Los Angeles, it said the average wait stretches to nearly two years.

The report said there were more than 228,000 open cases at the end of 2009, or 23% more than the year before.

The research institute said the massive backlog can be traced to a lack of federal judges, saying there are 48 vacancies.

The Executive Office of Immigration Review, which is responsible for immigration courts, refuted the report Friday, saying hiring is its "highest priority."  It said it is currently trying to hire 47 new judges and that many of the vacancies are newly created positions.

But the TRAC report said a "slow pace" of hiring means more judges have left in the last year than were hired, so the total number of working judges has dropped from 229 to 227.