When more than three dozen immigration courts closed during the federal government shutdown in October 2013, at least 37,000 immigration hearings were delayed by months or years, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.
Immigrants who scheduled hearings during the shutdown had to reschedule their court hearings to a future date, but because the court system is already overburdened by a backlog of cases, the shutdown extended the period of time immigrants spent in legal limbo. Some people even became ineligible to work and drive until they had a rescheduled hearing. During the shutdown, nearly 70 percent of immigration court hearings that involved immigrants who weren’t held in detention centers like those petitioning for political asylum or green cards had to be rescheduled for a future date. Other immigration court hearings that involved immigrants in detention centers — considered an “expedited” docket — were still held as scheduled, however. Sixteen immigration courts closed while 25 others were only open to immigrants who were detained. Rescheduling cancelled hearing dates is not a quick and easy process especially because it took an average 562 days to process one immigration case in 2013 while the court system still has a backlog of 350,000 cases.
Estrada Gonzalez is one of those immigrants whose case was put into legal limbo because of the shutdown. As the Arizona Republic first reported in October, Gonzalez was originally put into deportation proceedings in 2009, but became eligible to legalize his status after marrying the daughter of a naturalized U.S. citizen. After his green card was approved, he still needed to attend his deportation hearing because his driver’s license and work permit were renewable contingent on the hearing outcome. But because the hearing was cancelled, Gonzalez’s documents will remain expired until he receives a new hearing.
As Greg Chen, the advocacy director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association pointed out to the Washington Post in October, “Situations change. Memories fade. Evidence gets lost … If you have a court date now, and it is kicked off the calendar, it could be a matter of life and death.”
The news is likely to get worse for immigrants who are still waiting to have their cases heard since more than 100 immigration judges are eligible for retirement in 2014. According to a 2009 University of California at San Francisco study, immigration judges face greater job burnout and secondary traumatic stress, such as emotional duress from listening to firsthand accounts of traumatic experiences, than do prison wardens and doctors. Judges are also burdened by budgetary constraints since they don’t have bailiffs, court reporters, and aren’t guaranteed court clerks. Congress earmarks funding for immigration enforcement and detention through appropriations bills, but it doesn’t do the same for immigration courts, which have seen a 15 percent spike in the number of cases.