'Catch-up for years' as backlogged U.S. immigration courts open
NEW YORK (AP) - The nation's immigration courts were severely backlogged even before the government shutdown. Now it could take years just to deal with the delays caused by the five-week impasse, attorneys say.
With the shutdown finally over, the courts reopened Monday morning to immigrants seeking asylum or otherwise trying to stave off deportation, and hearings were held for the first time since late December. Court clerks scrambled to deal with boxes and boxes of legal filings that arrived after the doors opened.
Over 86,000 immigration court hearings were canceled during the standoff, the biggest number in California, followed by Texas and New York, according to an estimate from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. It estimates the courts have more than 800,000 pending cases overall.
The shutdown over President Donald Trump's demand for funding for a border wall to keep out migrants has only added to the delays in the system, where cases can already take years to be resolved, said Jennifer Williams, deputy attorney in charge of the immigration law unit at Legal Aid in New York City.
"They're going to be playing catch-up for years," she said.
The shutdown did not affect hearings for immigrants being held in immigration detention. It also had no bearing on applications for green cards and U.S. citizenship, which are handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and are funded by filing fees.
The cancellations were bad news for the many asylum applicants who have been waiting years to win approval so that they can bring loved ones to this country. It could be years before they are given new court dates, immigration attorneys said.
But for those with weak asylum cases, the canceled hearings could be a good thing, enabling them to keep on living in the U.S. and fend off deportation for now.
A spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the part of the Justice Department that oversees the immigration courts, could not immediately say how many hearings were delayed or when they would be rescheduled.
Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said: "What is clear is that the cases that were set for trial during shutdown will likely ultimately end up at the end of the line when a new date is picked."
Getting back to work didn't come without problems in courts around the country.
In San Antonio, a long-scheduled asylum hearing for a teenager from El Salvador was canceled because no Spanish-language interpreter was available, said Guillermo Hernandez, the teen's attorney. The hearing was rescheduled for late April.
"It's a little bit frustrating because we're trying to bring these cases to a resolution and move forward, and now we have to fight another day," Hernandez said.
At an immigration court in San Francisco, attorneys and paralegals carrying large bags, small suitcases or boxes stacked on a dolly waited in line to file documents that in some cases had piled up during the shutdown.
Attorney Sara Izadpanah said six of her clients missed court hearings because of the shutdown and she missed several deadlines to file court documents.
"What happened is pretty serious for a lot of our clients because it could be two or three years before they can get a new court hearing, and by then immigrations law could change," Izadphana said.
Judge Ila C. Deiss walked into the San Francisco courtroom, where about 15 people waited, and announced that there was no Spanish interpreter present but that a bilingual clerk would be able to help if needed.
One of the cases on the docket was that of a Nepalese woman seeking asylum. The judge set the woman's final hearing for July 2.
The woman's attorney, Gopal Shah, said they had to scramble to be in court Monday.
"We were not sure a hearing was going to happen today, but we showed up anyway," Shah said. "She was lucky her case was heard and a court hearing was set for July because judges already have full calendars."
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press reporters Nomaan Merchant in Houston; Astrid Galvan in Phoenix; and Amy Taxin in Orange County, California, contributed to this report.
Deepti Hajela covers issues of race, ethnicity and immigration for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dhajela. For more of her work, search for her name at https://apnews.com.