The federal Immigration Court in downtown Atlanta has stopped hearing many cases amid the federal government shutdown. “The impact is going to be tremendous. It is a huge, huge disruption in the orderly processing of cases that have been taking years just to get to where they are now,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. JEREMY REDMON/jredmon@ajc.com
Photo: Jeremy Redmon/jredmon@ajc.com
Photo: Jeremy Redmon/jredmon@ajc.com

Government shutdown hindering some aspects of immigration enforcement

The news was the same for most who showed up at Atlanta Immigration Court’s clerk’s office this week: Because of the partial government shutdown, their hearings had been postponed. Someone would be in touch with new dates.

With asylum and immigration cases now in limbo, thousands are unable to fully plan for their future. On the other hand, the postponements could cause hearings to be rescheduled for several years from now and allow many people to stay longer in the United States without legal status, even those who have weak cases for remaining here.

As of Jan. 11, an estimated 42,726 hearings across the country have been postponed since the shutdown began amid a stalemate over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. That estimate includes 763 hearings in Georgia.

The reason for the delays: The government has placed three quarters of the nation’s Immigration Court judges on unpaid leave, compounding a backlog of cases that already tops more than 809,000, including 26,447 in Georgia, TRAC’s figures show.

Such fallout runs counter to the Trump administration’s goal of putting more such judges to work and clamping down on illegal immigration. Still, the president has vowed to keep the government closed until he can make good on his campaign promise for expanding the wall along the southwest border. Now in its fourth week, the shutdown is the longest in American history.

“It is hindering immigration adjudications, enforcement — all the good, the bad and the ugly. It is insane,” said Carolina Antonini, a local immigration attorney who teaches law at Georgia State University.

Meanwhile, 58 percent of Americans oppose substantially expanding the border wall, while 40 percent favor the idea, according to a Pew Research Center telephone survey of 1,505 adults completed this week. Trump’s overall job approval stands at 37 percent, though his support among Republicans and Republican leaners remains high at 80 percent.

E-Verify — the federal program aimed at preventing employers from hiring unauthorized immigrants — is another casualty of the shutdown. As a result, some unauthorized immigrants who normally would be flagged by E-Verify will manage to get and keep jobs until the system goes back online, predicted Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney. That could end up costing employers who spend time and money to train those workers, he said.

More: Government shutdown: Employers confused by loss of background check

Georgia law requires government agencies and many private employers to use E-Verify. It’s unknown how state authorities will enforce this law amid the shutdown. James Balli, chairman of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, declined to comment. Companies should continue filling out required documents for their new hires, and they will have to remember to complete the process on E-Verify when the system is restored, said Ian Macdonald, an Atlanta attorney who helps businesses comply with immigration laws.

Some aspects of immigration enforcement are unaffected. For example, the federal 287(g) programs operating in the Cobb and Gwinnett county jails – the programs deputize local officials to help enforce federal immigration laws – are operating normally. GEO Group and CoreCivic, corrections companies that manage federal immigration detention centers in Georgia, said their employees and the facilities they operate haven’t been affected. Yet, nationwide, about 32,000 U.S. Homeland Security Department employees have been furloughed. And about 179,000 are working without pay.

In Atlanta Tuesday morning, Duluth-based attorney Stephen Emert stood at the back of one of the drab immigration courtrooms, waiting for his case to be heard. If he wanted, Emert could have taken a seat, as there was no shortage of empty spots that morning.

“Typically, this room is overflowing,” he said. “This courtroom is usually standing room only.”

Because of the shutdown and furloughs of judges, Immigration Courts have stopped hearing cases for people who are not being detained, which represent the majority of the matters they handle. That development can cut several ways for asylum seekers and others. While postponing their hearings will allow many to remain in America longer, it’s possible the evidence in their cases may grow stale or key witnesses may move away or die.

“The impact is going to be tremendous. It is a huge, huge disruption in the orderly processing of cases that have been taking years just to get to where they are now,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “From the perspective of the judges, it is just an extra stress and extra anxiety of ‘How are we going to deal with this?’”

Hearings for people in federal custody are continuing. So the immigration judges based in Atlanta plowed through many of them Tuesday, communicating with detainees in other parts of Georgia via video links.

Officials at the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration judges and courts, did not respond to requests for comment.

Tania Martinez, an insurance agent from Winder, checked on her case at the Atlanta Immigration Court Tuesday. When she finally reached the head of the line in the clerk’s office, she was told her hearing had been postponed. While the delay creates uncertainty for her and her family, it also gives her more time to fight to remain in America.

“Emotionally, it is another step that I have go through. It’s just a waiting game. It’s the unknown,” said Martinez, who was brought to the United States by her parents from Mexico when she was a child and who now has four children of her own, all of whom were born in America. “The system is broken.”

Staff writer Matt Kempner contributed to this report.

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