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October 11, 2013

Asylum Seekers in Limbo: Immigration Court and the Government Shutdown

Alexander* was being persecuted for his sexual orientation and finally fled his home country in 2010. By the time Human Rights First met him in 2011, he’d made it to the United States, but had been placed in immigration court for a deportation hearing. Although Alexander had applied for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he was rejected due to a technical error relating to the asylum filing deadline requirement. As with all cases Human Rights First takes on as part of its pro bono representation program, our organization found Alexander a pro bono attorney with a major law firm who immediately began working on his case.

Due to the extreme backlogs in U.S. immigration courts, Alexander’s asylum hearing was scheduled for more than two years after he first made his asylum request. This month, the day for his hearing has finally arrived. Alexander and his lawyer, like so many other asylum seekers and their counsel,  have been eagerly awaiting their opportunity to make their case in the hearing to determine whether the U.S. would grant Alexander protection and the chance for a new life or whether he would be sent back to his home country to face potential persecution.

But then the government shutdown happened, and if it continues into next week, Alexander will have to wait again. As the consequences of the government shutdown reverberate across the United States, affecting millions, one lesser-known but devastating impact has been on cases in immigration court. With nearly a million federal workers furloughed, including many in the immigration court system, only the cases of those who are in detention – cases that are usually on an “expedited” docket – are slated to proceed. Everybody else will have to wait.

Unfortunately for many in the asylum system waiting is nothing new. With pro bono representation programs in both New York City and Washington, D.C., Human Rights First has seen first-hand the stunning increase in delays caused by already insufficient funding, resources, and staffing of our nation’s immigration courts. Across the country, nearly 350,000 immigration matters remain pending for an average of over 550 days. In states like New York or California, the numbers are even more staggering.

For asylum seekers, the emotional toll of this kind of limbo is immeasurable. Alexander has already waited over two years. He has prepared himself for the hearing, during which he would need to recount and relive the trauma he faced at home, only to face the possibility that his case will be postponed to a yet unknown date. Immigration court delays often prolong family separation, but the shutdown exacerbates this.

Nathalie*, one of our clients who fled violence in central Africa, has five children still stranded in a dangerous situation at home. Her first court hearing, which she has anxiously awaited for many months, is next week.  Now it will likely be canceled, and for every day that Nathalie’s hearing is postponed, her family will live in fear and limbo—and so will she.

The shutdown has also halted legal information presentations under the Legal Orientation Program, that provide immigration detainees at some facilities with critical information about legal rights. As a result, every day that the shutdown continues, thousands of detained asylum seekers and immigrants are left without these lifelines to legal information.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Human Rights First has recommended increased funding for U.S. immigration courts. The multi-year-long delays and staff shortages that have plagued immigration courts would ease significantly if Congress increased the number of judges and provided each judge with sufficient support staff and a law clerk. If funding for the immigration courts were to match the enormous increase in caseload in recent years, we wouldn’t find asylum seekers and their lawyers facing the delays that exist today.

These delays undermine not only the U.S. commitment to protecting the persecuted, but they are also counterproductive to a fair, effective, and efficient immigration court system that desperately needs resources and repair – not a government shutdown.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.