Hundreds of immigration cases in Minnesota are sitting in limbo as the partial federal government shutdown continues with no end in sight, adding pressure to an already clogged system and leaving immigrants and their lawyers uncertain when hearings will be rescheduled.
A new report released this week says hearings in nearly 1,000 cases have been canceled so far in Minnesota — among more than 42,000 hearings that have been canceled across the country. There will be another 20,000 cancellations each week the shutdown continues, according to the report by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. That would leave as many as 100,000 people affected by the end of this month if the shutdown isn’t resolved by then.
“The immigration court system is already famously strained,” said Graham Ojala-Barbour, an immigration attorney in St. Paul who is one of the leaders of the local American Immigration Lawyers Association. “[Immigrants who] already face a great deal of uncertainty in their lives because of their immigration status have now even more unpredictability and uncertainty because of this.”
Cases for people detained by ICE are still moving forward, which is why, in Minnesota, two of the five immigration judges at the Bloomington Immigration Court are still working without pay. But the hundreds of pending court cases of people not in custody, such as those seeking asylum in the United States, are not being processed by the court, which is based at Fort Snelling and also handles cases in the Dakotas and western Wisconsin.
That adds mounting pressure on the system, which already had a backlog of more than 800,000 immigration cases nationwide and 8,500 cases in Minnesota as of November — most of which were cases of people not in detention. In Minnesota, cases have an average wait time of nearly two years.
The shutdown is creating an “unmanageable burden” on the court system and swamping judges, who are working without pay now, the National Association of Immigration Judges President Ashley Tabaddor wrote in a letter to all senators and representatives in Congress last week, urging an end to the shutdown.
“To add this artificial crisis … takes an already overburdened court into a new level of dysfunctionality,” Tabaddor added in an interview, saying that many judges have more than 3,000 cases on their docket, booked out years. “There’s no catching up to this backlog.”
Some 300 judges are furloughed, she added, and are frustrated as they dip into savings or try to find a way to pay their mortgage. She said she thinks many cases that had hearings canceled during the shutdown will be sent to the back of the line, pushing out cases two or three years.
One of Ojala-Barbour’s clients, a woman from India seeking asylum, had a hearing scheduled for the end of December that was canceled. And until the shutdown ends, it’s unclear when her hearing will be rescheduled.
David Wilson, liaison to the court for the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, also worries that, with the court short-staffed, paperwork could get lost during the shutdown, such as an immigrant’s request to change their mailing address. In some cases, they may not receive paperwork notifying them about a hearing and could miss the court date altogether, which could get them arrested.
“There’s a growing concern things are going to get lost,” said Wilson, adding that past shutdowns made things inconvenient for a few days; this time, it could take two to three months after the shutdown ends for the court to catch up on paperwork. “It’s going to take a long time for them to get out of the hole.”
Cases related to visa processing, green cards and citizenship are moving forward because they’re processed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is funded by fees from applicants. But until the shutdown is over, many immigrants waiting for courts to determine if they can stay in the U.S. will have to wait even longer.
“We’re talking about people who live in Minnesota and parts of our community and whose lives are being put in limbo,” said Margaret Martin, the legal program director for the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. “It’s very disruptive to their lives. Many of these people have been waiting a long time. This is just going to cause that time frame to be pushed even further.”