More than 1,000 immigrants showed up at courts across the United States on Thursday for hearings they’d been told were scheduled but didn’t exist, a lawyers’ group said, as the Justice Department struggles with an overloaded immigration court system and the effects of the recently ended partial government shutdown.
Immigration attorneys reported that lines wrapped around the court building in San Francisco, a line stretched for blocks to get into the court in Los Angeles and hundreds of people waited outside the court in Newark, New Jersey.
Thursday’s problems are the latest example of US immigration authorities issuing a large number of inaccurate notices ordering immigrants to appear at hearings that, it later turns out, had never been scheduled.
Lawyers first told CNN last year that they’d observed a wave of what they call “fake dates” pop up. For instance, lawyers reported examples of notices to appear issued for nonexistent dates, such as September 31, and for times of day when courts aren’t open, such as midnight.
“The immigration courts have reached a new crisis point,” said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The group said it tracked over 1,000 people showing up in courts Thursday with inaccurate hearing notices.
Inside a packed waiting room at the Arlington Immigration Court on Thursday, confused immigrants clutching paperwork asked lawyers for help. Some said they’d driven hours to get to court and had awakened at 3:30 a.m. to arrive on time.
‘I’m afraid and nervous’
“I’m left with a question mark. I’m wondering, ‘Why?’” said Bigail Alfaro, 39, who’s seeking asylum with her two children. “I’m afraid and nervous.”
As she prepared to head into court for a scheduled hearing, immigration attorney Eileen Blessinger found herself fielding questions and asking court officials to stamp paperwork to provide proof that immigrants had shown up.
“What happened?” one woman asked her.
“You don’t have court, because they made a mistake,” Blessinger said.
At an immigration court in Atlanta, a crowd of around 40 people were turned away, almost one by one, by a Spanish-speaking court employee telling people with notices that their hearings had been “postponed.”
Among those showing up for court were parents with small children, some dressed only with hooded sweatshirts and covering themselves with blankets, with the temperature in Atlanta in the mid-20s.
“They told us they would send us another citation by mail,” said a man named Jose who asked to be identified only by his first name. “But who knows when? And the hard part is they don’t let us know with enough time, enough time to prepare ourselves.”
In Los Angeles, immigration attorney Jonathan Vallejo said he saw 30-40 people ushered into a room where they were told they didn’t have hearings and given forms acknowledging they’d appeared at the court.
“It’s absurd what’s going on,” he said.
Problems were also seen in Dallas, Miami and San Diego, Lynch said.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the division of the Justice Department that runs the immigration courts, said the weather and government shutdown were partially to blame.
The office “was unable to proceed with hearings for some respondents who believed they had hearings scheduled,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “In some cases, the cases had been rescheduled to another date, but the lapse in appropriations prevented the immigration courts from issuing new hearing notices far enough in advance of the prior hearing date.”
An ongoing problem
President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the nation’s immigration system, specifically taking issue with the practice of releasing immigrants while they await their court dates. To remedy that, his administration has sought to hire more immigration judges in the hopes of unclogging the court.
But that has not happened – there are 409 immigration judges nationwide but nearly 80 vacancies – and the number of cases continues to grow.
For years, the number of pending cases has been slowly creeping up, as more are added to the docket than can be addressed at any given time. There are more than 800,000 cases pending, according to the Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions also created a quota system that requires judges to clear at least 700 cases a year in order to receive “satisfactory” performance evaluations. Between 2011 and 2016, judges completed 678 cases a year on average.
Judge Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, described judges in Los Angeles coming back this week to boxes filled to the rim with mail that had piled up over the course of the 35-day partial government shutdown.
“What this does is it adds greater delay to the cases. We were shortchanged five or four weeks of time,” Tabaddor told CNN. “Not only were we not able to hear cases that were previously cases that were scheduled, but it’s going to take time to regroup.”
Immigration attorneys say the instances of mistakenly scheduled hearings unfairly burden immigrants and create more pressure on a system that’s already suffering from a crushing backlog.
“Imagine the stress of facing potential deportation,” North Carolina immigration attorney Jeremy McKinney said on Twitter. “You’re told show up in court or be ordered deported in your absence. You drive hundreds of miles & wait in line only to be told the court date was not real. ‘Sorry for the minor logistical errors.’ “
The US Supreme Court ruled in June that notices to appear – the charging documents that immigration authorities issue to send someone to immigration court who’s accused of being in the United States illegally – must specify the time and place of proceedings in order to be valid.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said officials have been working to comply with the court’s requirements for notices to appear, but the lapse in funding during the partial government shutdown had delayed those administrative efforts.
“All appropriate parties are working together to solve this issue going forward,” she said.
In its statement Thursday, the Executive Office for Immigration Review said it had issued policy guidance in December and modified its system so the Department of Homeland Security and its components can directly schedule hearings.
The agency said it “does not expect any further recurrence of this type of situation.”