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Immigration court backlog grows under government shutdown

Immigration court backlog grows under government shutdown
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is responsible for immigration courts, operates out of the Department of Justice. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

The government shutdown over President Trump’s request for border wall funding is probably increasing the immigration court backlog.

While cases for people in detention centers are going ahead as scheduled, those for people on the nondetained docket will get new dates once the government is funded again. That means many hearings are being postponed in a system already clogged by more than 800,000 pending cases, according to the latest data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse out of Syracuse University.

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San Diego’s nondetained docket has more than 4,000 cases pending.

While caseloads during the shutdown have been lighter because of the holidays, many more cases will be affected if the closure continues into next week, according to Houston-based attorney Ruby Powers.

“That’s when it’s going to get really bad,” Powers said.

Because attorneys don’t know when the shutdown will end or how cases will be prioritized for rescheduling, there’s a lot of uncertainty for clients with upcoming court dates, Powers said.

Some of the hearings that will need to be rescheduled are from the “master calendar.” Those hearings are used to provide people in proceedings with information, paperwork submissions and schedule other hearings, known as “merits hearings,” which are more like trials.

While it can be frustrating to have either rescheduled, because the already existing backlog will probably push the new dates months or years into the future, rescheduling merits hearings can be especially difficult for clients, Powers said.

“They’ve been waiting. They’re so stressed out. Their whole life depends on this hearing date,” Powers said. “They want to get it over with so they can try to move on with their lives, and you can just feel that stress and uncertainty.”

If hearing dates get pushed years into the future, it can affect a person’s eligibility to stay in the U.S. Evidence can grow old, or country conditions can change. Fingerprints pulled as part of a background check might need to be rerun.

Sometimes the person is asking for permission to stay through a program that allows people to remain in the country if their absence will cause extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen child. If that child turns 18 before the case finishes, the immigrant will likely lose the ability to stay.

Immigration courts will send notices of the date changes to those whose cases are affected, according to a statement from the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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