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Shutdown-Delayed Immigration Cases Could Further Strain Backlogged System


Among the sweeping consequences of the ongoing federal government shutdown, immigration courts across the country are closed. From member station WHYY, Laura Benshoff reports that diverted cases could further strain a system already plagued by backlogs.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Immigration attorney Matthew Archambeault spent the last day of 2018 tidying his office in Philadelphia. But he hasn't yet called up clients to tell them they don't have to show up in court.

MATTHEW ARCHAMBEAULT: I kind of mentioned it to a few of the clients that, you know, there might be a chance that their hearings are not going to go forward because of the government shutdown. I don't like to get into it too much to them because it can be confusing.

BENSHOFF: Confusing because a delay in their hearings doesn't actually have anything to do with the facts of their cases. And the government shutdown could end at any time. When the government shut down, the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees federal immigration courts, sent out a notice. Immigration cases scheduled for hearings during the shutdown would be reset. The exception are the courts that work with immigrants who are already detained.

Those federal employees are working with no guarantee they'll be paid. Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge in Los Angeles and the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says this is all happening when these courts already face a heavy workload.

ASHLEY TABADDOR: We don't even have the time to be able to adequately really consider each case, much less have to spend extra time to think about what we're going to do with all the cases that have to be rescheduled.

BENSHOFF: She says she alone has about 2,000 pending cases. Nationally, the immigration court backlog is more than 700,000 active cases. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University keeps stats on federal immigration. It estimates it would take 3 1/2 years to clear that backlog. Tabaddor says adding time to the backlog isn't what President Donald Trump says he wants. His demands for funding for a border wall partially contributed to the impasse.

TABADDOR: It's quite ironic to shut down the immigration court because of the differences on immigration.

BENSHOFF: As for cases themselves, it's hard to generalize if a delay is good or bad. Here's attorney Matthew Archambeault again.

ARCHAMBEAULT: Every immigration attorney who's honest will tell you that sometimes getting cases delayed is the best thing for the case.

BENSHOFF: For example, if an immigrant doesn't have a good claim, a delay may mean more time in the U.S. or maybe qualifying for another form of immigration status in the interim. Or stretching out a case can hurt. It may keep someone who qualifies for asylum now from getting it later, for example, if immigration policies become more restrictive. In either situation, Archambeault says he's telling his clients to be prepared to go to court just in case. For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
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