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Trump’s shutdown is adding 20,000 cases per week to the record-high immigration court backlog

People had likely waited years to get hearings scheduled, only to have them cancelled by the ongoing government shutdown.

President Donald Trump, center, at a White House meeting in January. CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
President Donald Trump, center, at a White House meeting in January. CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Immigration court backlogs are growing by roughly 20,000 cases for each week the government remains shut, bloating the already record-high level of stalled hearings created by other policy choices that predate President Donald Trump’s staredown over border wall funding.

Some 42,726 immigration court hearings have been cancelled since Trump withdrew his support for a government funding bill in late December, according to the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The people whose cases get bumped because of the shutdown have in many cases already waited two, three, or four years for the now-cancelled hearings, the group’s Monday report on the shutdown’s impacts said. There are already more than 800,000 cases waiting in the clogged pipeline of the Justice Department’s in-house immigration judiciary — making it likely that cases cancelled by the shutdown will go to the back of an extraordinarily long line.

That may be good or bad news for the migrants involved in the cases, with some seeing it as a further reprieve that could mean their cases don’t get processed until after the next presidential election. But since immigration authorities are often aggressive about pushing to incarcerate people until their hearings or pressuring them to “self-deport” even before their cases get heard, the fresh delays will likely make some of the tens of thousands affected even more vulnerable.

As with other government functions, the shutdown’s impact on the immigration court system has accelerated substantially as Trump has dragged the standoff out. Roughly 5,600 cases were dumped to the back of the line in the first four days after government funding ran out. By the end of the following week, the total had tripled. Last week — the third of Trump’s shutdown — the total nearly tripled again.

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TRAC forecasts that the rate of case cancellations has now stabilized. If the shutdown continues through the end of this month, some 108,112 total immigration cases will have been knocked off the schedule in just five calendar weeks.

The Trump administration may not have realized this would happen when the president moved to shutter the federal government. The Washington Post reported 10 days ago that the White House had been caught off guard by the broad deleterious impacts a shutdown has on almost every category of public service.

Despite the administration’s avowed commitment to streamlining the legal immigration system, including multiple maneuvers designed to strip decisionmaking authority from the Justice Department-run courts and speed up deportations, Trump has managed to reverse progress on the immigration court backlog.

The backlog grew by one third over Trump’s first 16 months in office, to a then-record 714,000 cases with no scheduled court date. It had grown each of the three fiscal years before his swearing in, too, but at a much slower rate.

Counterintuitively, the Trump slow-down in immigration court processing is not being driven by a surge in new case filings. New cases are actually coming in at a slower rate than before, TRAC reported in the summer. But each case is taking longer to process than ever before — thanks, again, to a decision of Trump’s own making.

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The administration chose to strip immigration judges of their most potent schedule management tool, an authority called “administrative closure” that judges used to apply when they knew a case before them could not be resolved until some other relevant federal agency had weighed in on one or another aspect of it. It also scrambled judges around the map, making a big fuss about delivering a surge of judges to courts close to the border without, apparently, realizing that each reassignment of a judge would leave their existing docket in a backlog-swelling limbo.

Since it broke the all-time record level in May, the backlog has shattered that record repeatedly. The 809,041 cases backlogged as of November, TRAC’s last report before the shutdown began, mark a 50 percent spike above the backlog levels Trump inherited.