Though the partial government shutdown over President Trump’s quest for a “border wall” has gone on for weeks, closing most immigration courts among other federal services, many immigrants are still showing up for their hearings.
Those hearings are postponed indefinitely. Once the court reopens, it will send out new dates for people to appear in court. Those hearings will probably be months or even years into the future because of how many cases are pending and judges’ schedules are already tightly packed.
In the meantime, judges, their clerks and government attorneys go without paychecks, and the court backlog — often called out by the Trump administration as a “pull-factor” for migrants to come to the U.S. — continues to grow.
Ashley Negrette, an immigration attorney in San Diego, has a client who came from Mexico in late 2016 and applied for asylum. Her first individual hearing, where the judge would hear the facts in her case to make a decision, was originally scheduled for June 2018, then rescheduled by the court for this week. Now it’s going to be bumped again.
“Luckily, my client is patient and understands that she has to ‘wait her turn,’ but these delays undeniably cause hardship for her — emotionally and financially,” Negrette said.
The upside to the court closure, said immigration attorney Kirsten Zittlau, is that for clients who may eventually go on to lose their cases, the delay will buy them a little more time in the U.S.
The downside is that for some who have a good chance of winning their cases if they’re heard now, witnesses’ memories may fade or conditions may change in the country they fled.
Immigrants who don’t have attorneys often don’t know that the courts are closed. The voicemail for the San Diego court was never updated to reflect the closure caused by the partial shutdown.
They take time off work and pay for downtown parking only to be turned around once they reach the 8th floor of the A Street building that houses San Diego’s immigration court. A lone security guard contracted through a private company stands outside the court’s double doors, patiently explaining through language barriers that the court is closed.
Others know that hearings are canceled, but they come anyway out of anxiety that somehow they will still be deported if they don’t.
Liza Delarea took a day off work last week to accompany her friend from the Philippines to immigration court in downtown San Diego.
“We knew it was closed, but we had to make sure it was closed,” Delarea said. “If she doesn’t come to court, it’s going to be on her, not them.”
Delarea took a picture of her friend in front of the court’s closed sign before they left as proof that she had been there.
“It’s frustrating,” Delarea said of the delay. “We can’t do anything about it.”
Saman Nasseri, an attorney who specializes in immigration and criminal defense, also came to take a photo of the court’s closed sign to send to his clients. He hoped the visual would ease some of their fears.
“They don’t understand what it means that the government is shut down,” Nasseri said. “It’s been a little bit of a nightmare.”
He’s already had six hearings canceled and has four trials coming up in the next two weeks, he said.
Meanwhile, at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, Judge Scott Simpson briskly worked through more than a dozen cases one afternoon last week. While those who have been allowed to remain free while their cases progress will have their hearings rescheduled months or even years into the future, court continues for those held in immigration detention centers.
As with other federal employees still showing up to do their jobs in affected agencies in recent weeks, Simpson won’t be paid during the shutdown.
Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Rico Bartolomei is the only judge working in San Diego’s downtown court. The rest have been furloughed.
He heard four cases last week for unaccompanied minors who are being held at Southwest Key facilities contracted by the federal government. Those are considered detained cases.
He also heard detained cases over video conference for detainees in Imperial County, Hawaii and Guam.
Whether they’re furloughed or working without pay, the shutdown is frustrating for immigration judges, according to Ashley Tabaddor, head of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges. They’ve already been under pressure from the Trump administration to push through the backlog of cases numbering more than 800,000, and the shutdown is only adding to the bottleneck.
“This means that when we come back, our already ballooning dockets are going to become even more, and we don’t even have time to be able to sit down and figure out what we’re going to do with the cases that were canceled because we’re going to come back to a calendar that is scheduled years out in advance,” said Tabaddor, who hears cases in the Los Angeles court. “Everything is booked.”
She’s heard from judges who have had to borrow money to pay their bills. She worries about court staff as well.
“The only ones who are winning [in this situation] are the ones who don’t have a good claim and would be happy to get a few years’ delay in their case,” Tabaddor said.
She said the agency that runs immigration courts, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, was already running short on money before the shutdown and was planning to scale back on in-person interpreters.
“It was shocking to find out that in spite of the massive growth of judges we’ve seen in the past two years, they hadn’t accounted for fact that more judges means more hearings, which means more interpreters,” Tabaddor said. “Before they hire judges, they need to make sure they have the money to support those judges.”
Jason Aguilar, chief counsel for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency whose attorneys represent the government’s perspective in immigration cases, is the only government attorney working at the San Diego court. His staff have similarly been furloughed.
Because of how long it can take to finish an asylum case, some hopeful immigrants move to other parts of the U.S. and then fly back for hearings because they already have attorneys here. Those travel plans have been complicated by the shutdown.
Tammy Lin, a San Diego-based immigration attorney, said one of her clients flew in from Texas this week for a hearing that got canceled. The man has already waited more than two years to have his case heard.
Attorney Elizabeth Lopez of the Southern California Immigration Project, who specializes in asylum cases from African countries, had two clients who were supposed to come from Minnesota and Texas this week for hearings as well.
The airlines agreed to let them rebook their flights within 90 days, Lopez said. She hopes that gives them enough time.
Kate Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.