The partial federal shutdown has stalled more than 550 immigration cases that would have come before a Kansas City court, adding to a U.S. backlog that already had reached historic levels.
Here’s the irony: A federal slowdown triggered by President Donald Trump’s determination to strengthen border security will likely allow undocumented migrants to reside longer in the country, some for years, while their cases await final rulings.
“It’s really counterproductive for a system that’s trying to move these cases along,” said Syracuse statistician Susan B. Long. “No matter where you stand on the immigration debate, this (backlog) is a huge problem for everyone.
“Justice delayed is justice denied.”
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According to a Syracuse University research group that tracks court proceedings, canceled hearings for immigrants facing possible deportation totaled 42,726 nationwide between the start of the shutdown and Jan. 11. Throughout the country and in Kansas City, those cases needing to be rescheduled are on pace to more than double if the government impasse continues through January.
At Kansas City’s immigration courts, cancellations on Thursday included a first appearance for Cindy Avina’s husband, Jiro. The date had been on the couple’s calendar since he received a summons in May.
Taking no chances, they drove three hours from Newton, Kan., spent $80 on a hotel, and showed up as the court lobby opened.
“Nobody told us this was canceled,” said Avina, a legal resident. “We did know about the shutdown. But we thought it was best to show up because the government can be kind of picky.”
Her husband, carrying his passport, wore a crisp black suit he bought just for the hearing. The couple returned to Newton with a new date to appear — July 25, tentatively.
“Some of these people are making eight-hour drives from Liberal, Kansas,” said Andrea Martinez, a Kansas City immigration lawyer. “The most prudent approach is to have those clients come in anyway,” so they’re not seen as dodging if an overnight break in the political stalemate restores immigration offices to full staff.
Should that happen and hearing dates are missed, judges may see fit to issue final orders of removal. It’s happened after past shutdowns have suddenly ended, Martinez said.
For their part, immigration judges are being inconvenienced, too.
Three preside at Kansas City’s courts, which function under the Executive Office for Immigration Review. During the lapse in appropriations, they and the nation’s nearly 400 other immigration judges are hearing only cases of recently arrested immigrants jailed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE’s uniformed officers are considered “essential employees” within the Department of Homeland Security. Thus they continue to make arrests, according to media reports, though many are not receiving regular paychecks. Judges are hearing ICE detention cases without their normal compensation as well, said California judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
As the shutdown drags on, now the longest in U.S. history, “we’re getting more inquiries from immigration judges who are frustrated, stressed out and really angry about this situation,” Tabaddor said. “The courts are being used only as an extension of what law enforcement authorities need.”
She said that federal employees, including judges, looking to supplement their incomes during the shutdown are prohibited from practicing law outside of their jobs. Immigration judges earn between $130,000 and $175,000 annually, depending on seniority.
To reduce the legal logjam of immigration cases, the Department of Justice in recent months has hired dozens of additional judges. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions last summer challenged each of them to close at least 700 cases a year, which critics have called an arbitrary quota for deporting people.
Syracuse’s nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) cites a national backlog of 809,041 unresolved immigration cases as of Nov. 30, up from 542,411 cases that were pending in Trump’s first month as president.
Should the partial shutdown continue until Feb. 1, temporary cancellations will grow by at least 108,000, TRAC estimates.
In the Kansas City courts, which adjudicates cases from across Missouri and Kansas, 557 appearances were canceled in the first three weeks of the shutdown. That number could surpass 1,400 by Feb. 1, TRAC said, with trials rescheduled for months or even years into the future.
Before the shutdown, local judges had been putting off until 2022 some trials to review amnesty claims or petitions for relief from deportation. Such delays, including those caused by government closings, tend to benefit immigrants hoping to stretch out their U.S. stays for as long as possible, lawyers say.
“For those who don’t want a swift resolution, they can wait a few years,” said immigration lawyer Christopher McKinney.
Martinez agreed: “That’s absolutely the biggest irony of this whole thing.”
In the midst of a stalemate hardened by concerns over an immigration crisis, she said, “some already here are saying, ‘OK, I’ll just wait it out longer.’”