Shutdown Shutters Already-Clogged Immigration Court

Robert Siegel talks with immigration lawyer Andres Benach about how the government shutdown has affected his clients. Benach has had several clients miss court hearings that may take a year to reschedule, given the backlog of cases the immigration courts face.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We are now on day seven of the government shutdown, with many federal offices closed or limping along with minimal staff. For the nation's immigration system, which is already dealing with a huge backlog of cases, the shutdown has added an extra layer of complications. Deportations are continuing for those already in detention. But many courts that hear immigration cases are closed, and that leaves many people who are not detained - those petitioning for a political asylum, for example - in legal limbo.

Andres Benach is an immigration lawyer here in Washington, D.C., and he joins us now. I understand that you were supposed to be in New York City today at a client's hearing, but that's not happening. What's the case about?

ANDRES BENACH: It's a young lady who's been in the United States for most of her life, and she was seeking to obtain relief called cancellation of removal, which allows certain long-term residents of the United States to obtain their green cards if they could show that they are of good moral character and that family members would suffer a certain amount of hardship. She's been in proceedings for a while. Her last hearing was scheduled a year ago, but it was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy.

SIEGEL: And so after that, you rescheduled. You were then bumped to this October?

BENACH: Yes, that's right.

SIEGEL: And is that because that was the next available hearing date, or did you want to be after October 1? What was the reasoning there?

BENACH: A little bit of both. It wasn't the next available hearing date, but it was also because visas for people granted cancellation become available every October 1. Cancellation numbers are limited to 4,000 per year. That's by Congress. And so the thinking was if we schedule it shortly after October 1, a number would be available and she'd be able to get her green card on the hearing date on October 7.

SIEGEL: Well, that's one client's story. Do you have other clients who are affected by the shutdown?

BENACH: I've had two hearings that were canceled due to the shutdown. The first one was in the Baltimore immigration court, and that was for a young lady seeking asylum in the United States.

SIEGEL: Is this the South African woman? Am I right about it?

BENACH: Yes.

SIEGEL: Her claim would be that she would face sexual violence back home if she was sent back to South Africa. What do you do? Do you just wait for them to open and then try to get someone on the phone and get a new appointment set up?

BENACH: That's exactly right. There's nothing much else we can do. The courts are open for very limited purposes of hearing detained cases and requests for release on bond. But in terms of getting a new hearing date, that's going to require the full court staff. They're really sort of operating under a triage system right now. Once courts reopen, we would imagine that the court will issue a new hearing date and send out a notice, and we'll go forward with our claim on that day.

SIEGEL: Is all of this adding to the backlog and adding to the number of people who are waiting for something to be done about their cases?

BENACH: Of course, it is. The issue is too many cases, too little time, too few judges. You take out a number of working days, and the backlog just grows. New York is one of the worst backlogged courts in the country, and I expect that everybody is going to try their best to do something to help this poor young woman whose hearing was supposed to be held today. But the realities of the court docket are going to make it very challenging to get her case heard in the reasonable future.

SIEGEL: That's the young woman whose original hearing date was bumped by Hurricane Sandy.

BENACH: Yes.

SIEGEL: In the interim, can she work? Does she - is she able to support herself? Or is she in some twilight zone?

BENACH: She does have work authorization. But just having simple work authorization is not really the same as knowing that your status has been resolved finally that you can live permanently in the United States, that you can go back to your life and grow and develop in the way that most of us take for granted.

SIEGEL: Mr. Benach, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BENACH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Andres Benach who is an immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C.

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