Government shutdown could cancel more than 100,000 immigration hearings this month, study finds

By Kate Smith

/ CBS News

Shutdown bogs down immigration cases

Nearly 43,000 immigration hearings have already been cancelled due to the government shutdown, bumping immigrants out of court dates that took years to secure, according to a new report. And tens of thousands more hearings will soon be in jeopardy if the shutdown continues. Attorneys say migrants may have to wait up to four years in some areas to have their hearings rescheduled after the government reopens.

The partial government shutdown has closed most immigration courts, effectively cancelling 42,729 hearings from December 24 through January 11, according to the report from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Each additional week the government is shut down will cancel another 20,000 hearings. If the shutdown continues through all of January, that means more than 100,000 individuals will have had their hearings postponed, according to TRAC.

"The longer this continues the impact will be disastrous to an already overworked and understaffed Immigration Court system," said Alan Pollock, a New Jersey-based immigration attorney, in an interview with CBS News. After tomorrow, Pollock will have had 12 hearings cancelled.

Once the government reopens, those court appearances will get adde to the immigration court's record-high 800,000-case backlog, which has grown by 49 percent since President Trump took office in January 2017, according to TRAC. Several Trump administration immigration policies have dumped previously inactive cases onto the court's docket, making it difficult to process regular immigration hearings. Between the shutdown and those policies, immigration professionals estimate the backlog could climb to 1.1 million cases.

"The irony is that if they don't have their day in court they can't get deported, so if you want to deport people quickly, this is the exact opposite way to do it," said Jeremy McKinney, a North Carolina-based immigration attorney, who referred to the immigration courts as a "deporting machine."

Most people in the immigration court system have been waiting years for their hearings to take place, said Sui Chung, a Miami-based immigration attorney, in an interview with CBS News. While most have waited between one and three years, some with cancelled hearings due to the shutdown have waited up to 13 years, according to Chung, who conducted a survey last week among thousands of immigration attorneys to determine the impact of the shutdown.

Because of the backlog, it could be years before their cases are rescheduled, immigration attorneys said. In North Carolina, new dates for immigration hearings aren't available until late 2020 and early 2021, according to McKinney. In previous shutdowns, he was able to reschedule cancelled hearings within three months. In Houston, hearings aren't being scheduled until as late as 2022, Ruby Powers, an immigration attorney, told CBS News.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, an arm of the Department of Justice that oversees all immigration courts, did not respond to calls requesting comment. Calls to the office were sent to voicemail, where a recording said it would not be handling press inquiries due to the government shutdown.

First published on January 14, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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