This past Monday, immigration courts reopened for the first time in December—and clerks were greeted by a flood of legal filings and asylum-seekers. In the five weeks of the government shutdown, 86,000 court hearings were canceled, most of them in California, Texas, and New York. Immigration courts were already backlogged before, but the shutdown may have put the number of pending cases north of 800,000 in a system that's already stretched to its limits.
"They're going to be playing catch-up for years," said Jennifer Williams, a deputy attorney working in the immigration department at Legal Aid. Many of these cases had nothing to do with immigrants held in detention or applying for green cards or citizenship. Green card and citizenship applications are funded by filing fees, so the shutdown had no effect on their processing. However, the shutdown did affect the asylum seekers who were waiting years for their day in court, only to have it canceled and likely delayed for years more.
The only immigrants who benefit from the shutdown were the asylum seekers unlikely to win their cases, who can remain in the country for a few years longer without fear of deportation. Justice Department officials who oversee immigration courts couldn't say how many hearings were pushed back or when they'd be rescheduled. However, people waiting for a trial may not be happy to hear how their case will be pushed back.
"What is clear is that the cases that were set for trial during shutdown will likely ultimately end up at the end of the line when a new date is picked," said Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Assocation of Immigration Judges. One attorney expressed concern that such a long delay could have serious ramifications for their clients—not least of which is the possibility that the law will change before their hearing comes around.