When Juan was 17, he accepted probation in Miami for making threats, a case he chalks up to the immaturity of youth.
But because he was born in Mexico, of Cuban descent, he faces deportation to either of those countries, even though he was raised as a legal resident in South Florida. In the overburdened immigration court system, his lawyers have been fighting for over five years to earn him a reprieve — and they were on the cusp of success, with one final hearing set to take place just after Christmas.
Then came the federal government shutdown.
Anxiety in the immigrant community, already heightened under the Trump administration’s open hostility to immigration, is mounting.
“It takes a long time to prepare these cases. People wait a long time for relief and now their lives are on hold because of the shutdown,” said Miami immigration attorney Evelyn Alonso.
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Even under President Obama, the nation’s immigrant court system was stretched thin because of increased deportations. And Trump has made combating illegal immigration and escalating deportations a signature issue, taxing the court system even more. The number of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, many of them refugees from Central America, has increased sharply, adding to the judicial workload.
The nation’s immigration court system has more than 800,000 pending cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. In Florida alone, the crushing backlog is nearly 60,800 cases; most are in Miami.
To boot, there are only 400 immigration judges across the United States, a system marked by shortages in court staff, courtroom space and even interpreters.
“The irony is not lost on us that the immigration courts have been shut down over immigration,” said A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, who is an immigration judge in Los Angeles.
The Trump administration has railed against the delays, ordering caseload quotas for immigration judges, who, unlike in most court branches, are part of the U.S. Department of Justice. The judges’ association has repeatedly called for the immigration courts to be made independent, which would allow for greater resources and impartiality.
With the House unwilling to fund Trump’s much-touted border wall, the federal government partially shut down on Dec. 22, cutting off pay for federal employees while snarling security lines at airports, leaving national parks without supervision and taxpayers without their refunds.
The delays in immigration court are particularly acute in South Florida, with so much of its population hailing from the Caribbean, Central and South America. While asylum seekers at the southern border grab most of the headlines, there are vast numbers of people in South Florida in the immigration-court system for visa overstays, or facing deportation orders for entering years ago with no permission, or for minor criminal charges that might make immigrants deportable.
Hearings at the Krome Detention Center in West Miami-Dade and similar facilities have continued, although court staff members are not getting paid. Still, with no pay, there’s been shortages of employees involved in legal proceedings involving detained people — at a recent detention hearing, lawyer Alonso couldn’t go through with her hearing for one client.
“They couldn’t find a Spanish interpreter,” Alonso said.
Karla Lammers, secretary of the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, described a chaotic scene at Krome on Friday morning. She said waited about five hours to have a stay-of-removal motion heard. Security officers told her that the center was short staffed as a result of the shutdown.
“Everybody’s suffering,” she said.
The shutdown is even affecting people who want to leave the United States.
One 22-year-old Colombian woman in detention got arrested in Miami for driving drunk. She’d overstayed her visa and agreed to “voluntarily deport,” which might allow her to re-enter the United States after three years. As instructed by the feds, her family paid for her flight and sent the itinerary to her immigration officer — who never processed the paperwork. With the shutdown in full effect, the officer had gone on leave, her family was told.
“The family had to spend an extra $400 to change the flight,” said her attorney, Heriberto Hernandez.
Over at the U.S. immigration court in downtown Miami, immigrants who are not in federal detention have seen their cases grind to a complete halt. Throughout the end of December and into January, the clerk’s window was still accepting court motions — until it closed on Tuesday.
“I’ve got a box of documents sitting in my car that I can’t file,” said Hernandez, who lives in West Palm Beach.
For the clients, the dread is rising. One of Hernandez’s clients drove over two hours to the Miami courthouse to make sure the hearing was indeed canceled — he was afraid of being deported in case it actually went forward without him.
One woman who has lived in the United States for decades finally got Immigration and Customers Enforcement lawyers to agree to reopen a deportation case against her. But now she fears ICE will pick her up and deport her before she can go before a judge.
“This should have been ripe for adjudication,” said her lawyer, Tammy Fox-Isikoff.
Even when the shutdown is over, the aftermath will be a logistical mess, lawyers say.
Immigration judges generally have thousands of cases on their dockets, and all the hearings that have been missed will have to be rescheduled. Crucial witnesses may disappear. Someone may get too old to qualify for residency.
“These cases are booked years in advance. When you miss a day, you do not magically roll over the calendar,” said Tabaddor, the president of the judges association. “Those cases that were canceled will likely be sent to the back of the line — or some other case will get bumped.”