Immigration Courts Recover From Federal Shutdown As Historic Backlog Piles Up

Legal experts say the government’s plan to deal with the historic immigration court backlog has made matters worse. Meanwhile, courts are still recovering from the federal shutdown, which halted tens of thousands of cases.

José. an asylum-seeker from Nicaragua, talks with his lawyer Ruby Powers. His case was among those impacted by the federal shutdown.

In 2000, less than 2,000 cases were pending in Houston immigration courts. Two decades later, that number has soared to more than 52,000 cases — almost half of the backlogged cases statewide.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that addressing the ballooning backlog is a priority, and beginning in 2017, the Department of Justice rolled out a number of policy changes they said would make things more fair and efficient.

But a new report by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) claims these policies are failing. The immigration court backlog has increased 25 percent since the Trump administration implemented changes to address the backlog.

Immigration Court Backlog in Texas (TRAC Reports)

Policy changes included establishing case quotas for immigration judges and curtailing the practice of administratively closing cases. Administrative closure helped judges prioritize the cases on their docket. Limiting that practice added thousands of cases to the backlog.

Policies also make it harder for immigrants to stay in the United States, according to Emily Creighton, Legal Director for the American Immigration Council.


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"The changes outlined in the case management plan really appear to reflect a desire to fast track deportation, not a desire to improve inefficiencies in the courtroom," said Creighton.

Courts in Houston and San Antonio have some of the longest wait times in the country.

Recovering after the shutdown

In addition to inefficiencies caused by policy changes, immigration courts are also recovering from the month-long government shutdown that caused some 10,000 cancelled hearings in Texas.

Immigration courts are rescheduling missed hearings and filing back paperwork to address thousands of affected cases.

Many hearings are already back on the calendar for several weeks from now — a three month delay from their initial court date.

"We are seeing movement, so that was exciting," said Houston-based immigration lawyer Ruby Powers.


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She said courts are working quickly, all things considered.

"During that whole shutdown coming back things were a bit chaotic with judges trying to find files and trial attorneys not having files and catching up with all the filings that have been made," Powers said, although she expects longer delays will come when final merits hearings are scheduled.

"It is a major impact on lots of people's lives. That five week wait could lead to many years longer that they have to endure the uncertainty of their case," said Powers.

She said some hearings are being rescheduled as far out as 2022. Immigrants who have already waited their turn for years will have to start the clock over.

One of the people impacted by the shutdown was José, an asylum-seeker from Nicaragua, who asked us not to use his last name for fear of persecution.

His hearing for work authorization was cancelled during the federal shutdown.

"I was getting my clothes ready for my big day,” he said in Spanish. Then he found out he wouldn’t be going to court.

“It was really hard and painful for me,” he said, when he found out he would have to wait even longer to get his work permit and continue the asylum process.

He has no legal way to earn a living while he waits for courts to return to his case.