Immigration court backlogs compound as shutdown enters fourth week

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Dozens of immigration courts remain shuttered across the country this week and tens of thousands of hearings were canceled because of the ongoing government shutdown, a situation that is likely to add hundreds of cases to an already crushing backlog, according to analysts.

It’s an ironic twist in President Donald Trump’s desire to secure the U.S.-Mexico border by building a $5 billion wall and send people through established ports of entry. Democrats say they would support additional border security but have balked at wall construction, resulting in a 24-day government shutdown without any end in sight.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A group of people wait to cross the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge to turn themselves in to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel for asylum consideration on Jan. 13, 2019 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

The number of asylum and other immigration-related cases facing U.S. judges has skyrocketed in the past two decades, creating a backlog of more than 800,000 active cases before the shutdown began, according to data compiled by Syracuse University, based on Justice Department records.

Syracuse University estimated on Monday that nearly 43,000 immigration court hearings on a variety of matters, including evidence examination and basic scheduling, have been canceled. As many as 100,000 people could be impacted if the shutdown continues through the end of the month.

Aaron Reichlin Melnick, a policy analyst with the American Immigration Council, said that he estimates for every day the shutdown continues, another 500 immigration court cases that would have been completed are compounding the backlog.

“The stress on the immigration court system will only increase as backlogs continue to skyrocket due to the shutdown,” Reichlin-Melnick told ABC News.

GRAPHIC: An AP graphic shows the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts.AP
GRAPHIC: An AP graphic shows the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts.

The estimates are based on the average number of court matters typically completed when the government is not shutdown.

After the shutdown began last month, court proceedings stopped for anyone who was not detained by U.S. authorities. Cases for detained immigrants were allowed to continue under the Justice Department’s shutdown plan. Many people, particularly those traveling with children, would not necessarily be detained for long periods of time unless there was evidence of other criminal activity.

The shutdown also creates a paperwork backlog, as courts for non-detained cases are not open to receive key documents from lawyers. That includes case documents to help asylum applicants prove their right to stay in the U.S.

In addition to the impact on cases, the judges who were scheduled to hear cases are feeling the strain of growing uncertainty and not getting a paycheck.

Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, President of the National Association of Immigration Judges is worried about the financial hardship for hundreds of her colleagues working without pay.

“The ticking time bomb is the impact [on judges],” Tabaddor said. “It is going to have a big impact personally on the judges’ financial standing and ability to be able to support their families.”

PHOTO: A graphic released by the Associated Press shows the number of pending cases in immigration courts across the United States.AP
A graphic released by the Associated Press shows the number of pending cases in immigration courts across the United States.

For many immigration judges, the decision to enter public service is already a sacrifice, Tabaddor said. They typically carry academic credentials that could give them the opportunity for much higher paychecks in the private sector.

“At some point maybe some of the judges will say, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for.’”

Financial problems are a common cause for the government to deny security clearances. Judges could face difficulty in passing their ongoing background screenings which aim to ensure they’re not at risk of defaulting on debt.

“I hope we do not get there,” she said. “I hope the shutdown is resolved soon and quickly.”

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