The Washington Post: "Shutdown worsens strain on US immigration system"

by Joseph McKeown

The ongoing partial US government shutdown is causing additional strain on US immigration courts as well as creating potential hardships for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and officers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, and other front-line Department of Homeland Security personnel who are considered “essential” workers and must continue to work without pay during the shutdown. Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says that the federal employees including CBP officers and agriculture inspectors stationed at border crossings and airports, are “key to our nation’s security and economic success, and they do not deserve to be treated this way.” CBP agents are taking into custody more than 2,000 migrants per day on average and, with nowhere to detain them, the government has been releasing hundreds onto the streets in El Paso, Texas, Yuma, Arizona, and other border cities.

Although US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) continues to operate and adjudicate cases (with only certain exceptions), the shutdown is adversely affecting the US immigration courts, which are already dealing with a backlog of over 800,000 cases. Although immigration courts are continuing hearings for immigrants held in detention centers, all other hearings scheduled during the shutdown will be rescheduled, the Executive Office for Immigration Review says in a statement. Immigration lawyer Jeremy McKinney, an attorney with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says that the shutdown “could not have come at a worse time due to this unprecedented backlog.” Indeed, the average wait time for an immigration court hearing is 718 days, sometimes more, and McKinney speculates that given this delay, any case on hold will likely “not be rescheduled until 2020.”

Immigration judges, attorneys, and support staff are either working without pay or being told not to show up to work. San Francisco immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks explains in an NPR interview: “Individuals who are working on detained cases, including judges and support staff, are working now without pay,” while those in the non-detained court settings have been sent home.  “We’ve never been in a situation that is so dire with regard to the backlog of immigration cases nationwide,” she adds.  

E-verify, the free internet-based system which allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the US, is also not operating during the shutdown. Visitors to the E-verify website are greeted by a red banner alerting them that the services are “currently unavailable due to a lapse in government appropriations.” Deborah Wakefield, an attorney at Campbell & Associates Law Firm PC in Dallas, confirms that several clients cannot complete hiring process because E-Verify does not work. The website displays a dire message under the pending status for new hires: “We understand that E-Verify’s unavailability may have a significant impact on employer operations.”  

Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the union that represents the country’s approximately 400 judges, describes shutdown’s impact as “immense.” She notes: “The irony is not lost on us, that the immigration court is shut down over immigration.”