Twenty-seven days into the government shutdown, many functions of the federal government have stopped as President Donald Trump and Congress have come to an impasse on funding it.
That includes much of what typically happens at the Federal Immigration Court in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Nearly 960 immigration hearings scheduled during the partial government shutdown had been canceled as of Jan. 11 at the court, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a Syracuse University project that makes federal immigration court data public. Nationally, nearly 43,000 cases had been canceled.
If the shutdown continues until Feb. 1, an estimated 2,300 hearings will have been canceled in Minnesota, and if the federal government doesn’t open by March 1, nearly 3,700.
In addition to causing uncertainty for immigrants scheduled to appear in court and their attorneys, immigration lawyers say the cancellations will add pressure to a growing backlog of cases in the court, where wait times for hearings can already stretch on for years.
A growing backlog
There are many reasons a person awaits a hearing in immigration court. It could be that they crossed the border seeking asylum and are awaiting to hear if they’ll get it. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) might have flagged their green card, DACA or citizenship application. Or they might have been arrested and found to be undocumented, a refugee or a green card holder.
A lot is at stake for people who have cases before the court: Possible outcomes from the hearings include deportation, a voluntary departure, finding no grounds for deportation, or granting the request for a green card, asylum or other status to stay in the country.
In Minnesota, the number of pending cases in federal immigration court has nearly doubled since 2016.
That tracks with the national trend, but while the number of pending cases has risen steeply across the U.S. in recent years, it hasn’t gone up quite as quickly as in Minnesota.
Lawyers say there are a few reasons for the backlog in Bloomington.
First, with just a handful of judges hearing cases, attorneys say the court has been understaffed since its inception.
Second, Minnesota’s immigrant population is a diverse one, and many people facing deportation have been in Minnesota for a long time, making their cases more complicated.
As of June, a person in Minnesota could expect to wait 1,060 days — or about three years total — for an immigration hearing, according to TRAC.
Under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department made it a goal to more quickly process immigration cases (immigration courts fall under the Justice Department, not the Judicial Branch). But some of the reforms designed to speed up the process have prolonged wait times and piled onto the backlog, per TRAC. Now, with the federal government in partial shutdown since Dec. 22, things have all but ground to a halt.
“The irony of it, of course, is we’re at a time when there’s a lot of political discussion about moving cases through the system and dealing with the backlog. Now we have a shutdown, which is just going to exacerbate the backlog,” said Stephen Meili, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, who directs the school’s immigration clinic.
Papers piling up
Since the shutdown, a small minority of cases in Bloomington immigration court — generally those concerning people in detention — continue to be heard, while the vast majority of cases, those involving people who are not detained, are canceled.
As federal employees are furloughed, lawyers continue to file motions with the court, said Margaret Martin, the legal program director for the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
“Generally you bring them in, you get them stapled and the clerks take them in and put them in the files,” Martin said. “Now, they’re literally getting piled up on a desk or a table because there’s nobody to put them in the client file.”
Place a phone call to the court, and it’s dropped before you can talk to anyone.
If the federal government hasn’t been opened by midnight on a given day, undetained cases for the following day have been canceled, Martin says.
“Every day there are more cases being canceled, so every day this goes on, the worse,” Martin said.
It’s disrupting people’s lives, she said, and is expensive for the system as well as for clients.
For example, she said, an Immigrant Law Center client who lives four hours away has a hearing scheduled for early next week.
“As of now, we have to act as though that hearing is going forward, so he’s taking time off work, he’s found himself a ride, he’s preparing with his attorney,” she said.
But it’s unclear when he’ll get his day in court. And if it doesn’t happen as scheduled next week, it’s uncertain when his hearing will come, Martin said. It’s unclear whether people whose hearings have been canceled — who, in many cases have already been waiting for years — will be rescheduled sooner, or be bumped to the back of waitlist.
“It’s chaotic and it’s difficult for clients and it’s difficult for attorneys,” Martin said. “The clients look to us for advice and we don’t really have a lot of information.”
The cancellations are likely to compound stress for people waiting for a decision from the Bloomington court, Meili said.
“It puts a lot of pressure on individuals and their families to be in this state of limbo,” he said.
But it also puts an additional burden on their lawyers. The longer it takes for a case to be heard, the harder it often is to piece together.
Asylum cases, for instance, which may be sought for persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion, often hinge on a person’s ability to remember a significant event, Meili said.
In a political opinion cases, for example, the evidence may depend on something that was said to the asylum seeker.
“Oftentimes there’s no written record of those things, it’s the recollection of the witnesses, or the applicants,” Meili said. “As time goes on, memories can fade, witnesses who would have supported the asylum applicants claim may move or become unreachable.”