Immigration-sparked shutdown adds to court backlog

The stack of legal papers
A staff attorney at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota flips through a large stack of legal papers.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News 2014

Thanks to a partial government shutdown that began over an immigration policy dispute, the Bloomington immigration court has had to cancel nearly 1,000 hearings, adding to its backlog of immigration cases.

The longer immigration judges stay furloughed, the more the backlog grows. Hearings for those out of detention have been canceled for a later, undetermined date, while individuals held in federal custody continue to go to court.

Minnesota has a backlog of 8,547 cases, a 6.6 percent increase from 2018 and a 40 percent jump from 2017, according to data from TRAC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center at Syracuse University that collects immigration data.

The immigration court in Bloomington, which covers Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, has had 959 hearings canceled as of Jan. 11, according to the research.

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Nationally, the estimated number of cancellations has reached 42,726.

Immigration attorneys continue to file motions as if cases are moving forward because they don't know when hearings will resume. Even the most routine filings that need federal immigration judges' approval are sitting idle because the judges are not allowed to act.

"A lot of work is being done that might need to be repeated again in several years if the cases get bumped out that far," said Graham Ojala-Barbour, an immigration attorney in St. Paul and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota law school.

One of his clients is a green-card applicant who's seeking permanent residency through his spouse, a U.S. citizen. The client is scheduled for a green-card interview abroad in February, which requires him to file documents that he'll leave the country voluntarily. The attorneys for the government agree on the voluntary departure, but both sides still need a judge's approval. If he leaves the country without that signoff, he won't be able to re-enter.

"When the government is not shut down, this unopposed motion is a routine thing to get accomplished or done. As long as both parties agree, the judge often will rule in favor of the motion," Ojala-Barbour said. "It's especially painful because it could be so easy for it to be done, but the judge's hands are tied by the policy."

Attorneys say the majority of cases scheduled before immigration court are for individuals out of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, meaning the shutdown is affecting a larger group of immigrants seeking to resolve their cases. Some have been waiting months or years for hearings.

Now in its 33rd day, the government shutdown over funding for a border wall has led to additional hurdles in immigration court.

TRAC estimates that if the shutdown continues through Feb. 1, the number of local canceled hearings will more than double to 2,272. It is estimated to balloon to 3,688 by March 1.

"All of the cases should be going forward, because there are already so many backlogs in our immigration court system, this is just adding to that," said Margaret Martin, legal program director at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "I wish that there were a way that the shutdown could end or that the immigration courts could work as efficiently as they could by continuing to have all of the hearings scheduled."

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is another component of the Department of Homeland Security that handles visa and citizenship cases. Those offices continue to be funded, but some cases are at a standstill because the ultimate decision lies in the hands of an immigration judge.

Another one of Ojala-Barbour's clients, an unaccompanied minor, has been granted asylum by the asylum office under USCIS. He's also in removal proceedings before the court; the attorneys agreed to terminate the proceedings now that he's been granted asylum. ICE did not oppose the motion, but the judge is unable to make a final ruling.

"Even though legally the delay might not change the case," Ojala-Barbour said, "the lack of resolution for a longer period of time impacts people's lives."