After Shutdown, It's Hurry Up And Wait In LA's Immigration Court

A crowd lines up to get into the immigration court on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles in October, 2018. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

Tens of thousands of canceled hearings. Delays of new cases. Judges with no time to review existing cases. Missing files. A shortage of court interpreters. This was the situation in L.A.'s immigration court as it reopened after the shutdown.

President Trump launched his showdown with Congress in the name of getting tough on unauthorized immigration, but the five-week partial government shutdown dealt a blow to the administration's efforts to clear the courts' massive backlog and speed deportations.

The federal agency that oversees the courts says people whose hearings were canceled during the shutdown — an independent group estimates there were more than 80,000 nationwide — will be receiving notices in the mail with a new hearing date. When that will happen is not clear.

Meanwhile, it's taken time for the courts to get up to speed after the shutdown.

On a recent morning, attorney Richard Lucero emerged from the immigration court building in downtown Los Angeles after a hearing, his first after the shutdown ended. He said things were almost normal, save for one thing.

"Today I proceeded with my case. It was a status conference. The only difference is the government didn't have their file," he said. "The judges had their files ... so [the government attorneys] are still under a little bit of a disadvantage."

During the shutdown, the only cases heard were those of detained immigrants, a small percentage of the overall pending caseload.

When courts like the one in downtown L.A. reopened, more cases had to be continued, judges say. Some government case files stored off-site didn't make it to court because no one had been around to order them. Judges who were furloughed hadn't had time to review cases. Interpreters, who have to be booked in advance, were scarce.

And no one knows when people whose hearings were canceled will have their day in court.

"GO TO THE END OF THE LINE"

All this is happening against a pre-existing backlog of more than 800,000 pending cases nationwide. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, there are more than 76,000 pending cases in Los Angeles, home to the nation's second-busiest immigration court.

"The shutdown was a huge, huge impediment to being able to complete cases," said immigration judge Ashley Tabaddor, who works in the L.A. court.

Of the hearings that were canceled during the shutdown, "the ones that were set for trial will likely have to go to the end of the line," said Tabaddor, who is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

"So based on each judge's docket, sometimes it can be two years, three years or more for those cases to be heard," she said. "The shutdown was the worst thing you could do for speeding up the process."

Simple status hearings are one thing, she said, but deportation cases that are set for trial require extensive preparation — which in some cases couldn't happen during the shutdown.

Tabaddor recalled a case she had on her calendar the first day the court reopened.

"I just frankly told the people that I don't have the ability to go forward today, because I have not been able to read the 500 pages of filings that have been made in this case, and neither had the government," she said. "The government attorney didn't even know what the case was about."

So the case was continued, joining the others that were held up during the shutdown.

YOU CAN ASK TO MOVE UP YOUR COURT DATE, BUT DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH

According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the courts, people whose hearings were canceled may petition to move their hearing up once they receive a new court date.

But because the courts are so backlogged, such petitions are rarely granted, said Lucero, the immigration attorney.

He said exceptions may be made if there's a special circumstance, like an illness in the family. But "just because you want a sooner court date, that's not going to happen," said Lucero, who represents clients pro bono for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles.

It was just a few months ago that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on immigration judges to work through cases much more quickly and discouraged them from granting continuances. Sessions also introduced a policy saying judges could not receive a favorable performance review unless they met an annual quota of completed cases.

But that was before the shutdown.

"It's a little bit contrary to [Sessions'] order if the government is shutting down and because of this, these cases are now going to be delayed for years and years," Lucero said.

CAMPING OUT IN A CRAMPED EL SERENO BEDROOM

In lots of cases, he said, canceling a hearing can benefit the person the government wants to deport.

"If you don't have a very strong case here in the immigration court ... it would benefit you to delay your case as much as possible, maybe ... hoping for a new administration," Lucero said.

However, for people with strong cases who've spent months or years waiting for a hearing, "this shutdown is detrimental to you" because of the added delays, he said.

Zuleyma Pacheco fits into that latter category. She's a Salvadoran asylum seeker who spent two years waiting for an immigration court hearing that was set for January 9. Because it's taken so long for her case to be processed, Pacheco could be eligible for a work permit. But she had to appear in court to seek one.

"Now, everything is delayed," she said, sounding dejected one recent afternoon at home in El Sereno. "I'm just trying to get by here in this country, with the work permit that one needs to have."

Pacheco, 46, said she was hoping to earn a better living while her asylum case played out. Right now, she and her 10-year-old son are camped out in her legal-resident mother's apartment, which is already shared with roommates. The three share a cramped bedroom.

Pacheco has no idea when she'll get another hearing date.

Meanwhile, in the L.A. court, the focus right now is to get fully up to speed just to deal with the scheduled hearings, said Tabaddor, the immigration judge. After that will come the thousands that were canceled.

It's not clear how much time the immigration courts will have to get things back to normal. Trump has threatened another government shutdown soon if he doesn't get money for a border wall.