LOS ANGELES (AP) — The federal government shutdown last year delayed more than 37,000 immigration hearings by months or years for immigrants already waiting in lengthy lines to plead for asylum or green cards.
While the country’s immigration courts are now running as usual, immigrants who had hoped to have their cases resolved in October so they could travel abroad to see family or get a job have instead had their lives put on hold. Many had already waited years to get a hearing date in the notoriously backlogged courts, which determine whether immigrants should be deported or allowed to stay in the country.
Now, some hearings have been pushed into later this year, and thousands more have been shelved until 2015 or later, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.
“This is a big task, and not one that will be accomplished quickly, especially given our current staffing shortage,” Chief Immigration Judge Brian O’Leary wrote in an Oct. 17 email to immigration judges and court administrators obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. A day earlier, O’Leary wrote in a separate email to staff that the tally of deferred hearings had surpassed 37,000 and many immigrants probably wouldn’t get their cases heard until at least 2015.
The delays triggered by last year’s federal government shutdown that closed national parks and furloughed government workers has further strained an immigration court system already beset with ballooning caseloads, yearslong waits and a shortage of judges. The impact on immigrants has been uneven. Those with strong cases for staying in the U.S. are left in limbo for even longer, while those who face likely deportation have won more time in the United States.
“For some people, it probably was a huge reprieve,” said Andres Benach, an immigration attorney in Washington. “Just not my clients.”
About 70 percent of all immigration court hearings were put on hold, and all involved immigrants who were not held in detention centers. The rest — immigrants in detention facilities — proceeded with their hearings as scheduled. About half of immigrants in detention have criminal records.