Immigration case backlog keeps growing as shutdown drags on

‘Some people have been waiting years to have their cases heard,’ immigration attorney says

Immigrants and their supporters rally outside a federal immigration court in February 2017. With the government shutdown in full swing, most immigration courts are closed. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)

The partial federal government shutdown has closed most immigration courts, exacerbating the immigration case backlog as judges postpone scores of court cases.

Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said that many immigration judges are on furlough, or unpaid leave, and had to postpone immigration cases, which can take years before they are reheard.

“There is an irony of shutting down the immigration courts when the whole issue on the government shutdown is about immigration,” she said. “The court system should not be used as a political tool.”

The backlog of immigration cases has risen dramatically as President Donald Trump has tried to crack down on illegal immigration in his first two years in office. As of Nov. 30, 2018, the number of pending cases on the court’s active docket grew to 809,041 cases, a nearly 50 percent increase since January 2017, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC.

The Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review issued a memo on Dec. 26 that said all non-detained individuals with hearings scheduled since Dec. 22 will have their appointments canceled, while detained individuals will have their cases proceed as scheduled.

Immigration attorneys say the delay of court cases can cause financial strain on their clients.

“Some people have been waiting years to have their cases heard and now this delay will only exacerbate the problem,” said Allen Orr, an immigration attorney.

Orr argued that this also puts enormous pressure on immigration judges who are already burdened with a new quota system. Last year, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed a case quota for immigration judges. Under the new quota system, immigration judges will be required to complete 700 cases a year and to have fewer than 15 percent of their decisions sent back by a higher court.

“It’s going to stress the court because they are going to be looking to hit numbers rather than administer justice,” he said.

Kate Voigt, the associate director of Government Relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that the shutdown is just one of many tactics the Trump administration has used to “erode the efficiency and due process in immigration courts nationwide.”

“The shutdown will undoubtedly make the immigration court case backlog worse, a backlog that already numbers around 800,000 cases,” she said. “Holding government operations hostage for a wasteful and ineffective border wall will do nothing to make our country safer, but it will undermine due process and make the court backlogs worse.”

The partial government shutdown began on Dec. 22 after Congressional Democrats refused to provide $5 billion for Trump’s long-promised border wall in the spending packages for fiscal year 2019 and stated that they are only willing to give the government $1.3 billion for border security measures, which do not include the construction of a border wall.

However, Trump rejected the proposal and told reporters last week that he’ll keep the government closed “as long as it takes.”

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