With immigration courts already backlogged and overflowing with cases, the government shutdown closing immigration courts except for the most pressing cases is only creating longer lines for immigrants waiting for their turn in court.
The Justice Department issued a directive ordering government attorneys who handle criminal cases to continue without interruption in order “to maintain the safety of human life and the protection of property.” The rest of the pending cases are postponed until the government is up and running again. Currently the attorneys’ offices are operating at 63 percent of their normal staffing levels and this is including both lawyers and non-lawyers. Due to furloughs, many high-profile cases nationwide have been delayed. The Federal Trade Commission lawyers in Chicago told the judge they were not getting paid so they had to postpone their hearing to a later date.
For the most part criminal cases are not to be impacted, but one U.S. Attorney recently created a stir when she issued guidelines saying that immigrant smuggling cases would not be prosecuted unless it involved death or serious injury. Non-marijuana drug smuggling cases would not be prosecuted either if the suspect in custody had a “border crossing card.” In fact, no marijuana cases were to be prosecuted at all. However, after the press found out about these stipulations, Duffy’s office took back the statement saying all prosecutions of immigrant and drug smuggling offenses would be restored. “Our initial contingency plan was not going to allow us to maintain our regular intake of criminal cases, so we sought and received authorization from DOJ to exempt more of our criminal division staff from furloughs,” Duffy said. The majority of other immigration courts have been closed although hearings are taking place for those held in detention.
Because of the closures, many immigrants who are either fighting deportation or seeking asylum are not getting their cases heard. Many people have been waiting for years to get a chance to be heard in court but advocates say they will just have to wait longer. “If you had your case set for today and you can’t appear because the court is not open, you could likely have your continuance set out a year or more,” said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s not just show up next Tuesday. It’s show up in 2014 or 2015.”
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