Government shutdown delays immigration hearings as an already historic backlog grows

Cases are being postponed indefinitely with courts closed across the country.

January 4, 2019, 4:08 AM

The federal government shutdown has led to the closure of a number of U.S. immigration courts handling cases for tens of thousands of people whose status is in limbo – another twist in the protracted showdown between President Donald Trump and Democrats over border wall funding.

The closures, which impact people whose immigration status is uncertain in dozens of courts across the country, has led to cases being indefinitely delayed and has further added to the already record-setting backlogs and years-long wait times, immigration legal experts told ABC News.

Immigration judges already face a heavy burden dealing with the current caseload, said Amiena Khan, an immigration judge who serves as vice president at the National Association of Immigration Judges.

"It is extremely frustrating," Khan said. "There is a tremendous amount of irony to all of this. As the government is shut down for this process to ensure greater border security, look at what it's doing to our system as a whole."

Graphic shows congressional leaders invited to White House briefing on border security.

Though immigration courts, which operate under the Department of Justice, continues to handle cases for detained migrants, the majority of people who face pending deportation proceedings are not detained.

The clients of immigration lawyer Jeremy McKinney may have to wait a full year before the court can even set a later date for a judge to assess the case, McKinney said. Two of his clients, who were supposed to appear Wednesday, had their court dates canceled.

“You have to give this court system proper resources and proper integrity for it to do its job,” McKinney said.

Trump has pushed Democrats to vote for more border security, using the government shutdown as leverage for funding. He told reporters in the White House on Wednesday that he’ll keep the government closed, “as long as it takes.”

However, the case delays pose a further challenge to the Trump administration's efforts to expedite deportation processes and crackdown on illegal immigration.

In the past year, the backlog of immigration court cases has surpassed one million, according to Department of Justice data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

“For immigrants with legitimate claims for certain types of immigration relief delays launch them further into a vulnerable limbo with no legal status,” said Sarah Piece, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

The delays could put families of asylum applicants at risk as they wait in the applicant's home country, potentially facing violent conditions that would qualify them for refuge in the U.S., immigration experts say.

A new U.S. citizen holds a flag to his chest during the Pledge of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library, July 3, 2018, in New York.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images, FILE

Even if the courts reopened tomorrow, cases with dates that took place during the shutdown would have to be rescheduled – potentially months later – since immigration judges have their calendars booked far in advance.

The extra time to establish family roots by getting married or waiting for case law to be decided in federal court could offer more options for avoiding removal, according to legal experts.

“When it comes to victims of domestic violence and gang-based crime the law has been thrown into turmoil … having a delay of game for those individuals, that’s not bad news,” McKinnley told ABC News.

And for some immigrants with weak legal cases, the delay buys time in the US before they are deported.

One possible solution to helping relieve the backlog is a fundamental restructuring of how such courts are funded and resourced, Khan said. This method would include removing courts from the executive branch where they are currently under the purview of the Department of Justice and creating a system where the courts function and are funded more independently.

"Immigration courts have been starved of resources for so long because we are so low on the totem pole with regard to appropriate funding," she said.

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