Thousands of immigrants seeking legalization through the U.S. court system have had their hearings canceled and are being told by the government that it may be 2019 or later before their futures are resolved.
Some immigration lawyers fear the delay will leave their clients at risk of deportation as evidence becomes dated, witnesses disappear, sponsoring relatives die and dependent children become adults.
The increase in cancellations began late last summer after the Justice Department prioritized the tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them mothers with children and unaccompanied minors.
Immigration lawyers in cities that absorbed a large share of those cases, including New York, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Denver, say they've had hearings canceled with little notice and received no new court dates. Work permits, green cards, asylum claims, and family reunifications hang in the balance.
Denver immigration lawyer David Simmons said he's never seen such a standstill in nearly 30 years of practice. "There is no maneuverability," he said. "It's as if we have no court at all."
One of Simmons' clients, Maximiano Vazquez-Guevarra, 34, recently won his appeal to become a legal permanent resident. But his case still needs to go in front of an immigration judge one last time, and it has been pulled from the docket.
Vazquez, who is from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, entered the U.S. illegally in 1998. He has been fighting deportation since 2011, when he came to authorities' attention after his second driving under the influence charge. He lives in suburban Denver with his American wife, Ashley Bowen, and their 6-year-old daughter, and they are expecting their second child in August.
Meanwhile Vazquez's brother in Mexico is dying of kidney failure, and Vazquez can't leave the country. "It's sad," Vazquez said in a telephone interview. "I feel bad not seeing him, to say one last goodbye."
Before July, only immigrants in detention were considered a priority for the courts. Under the new policies, unaccompanied minors and families facing deportation also have priority status, regardless of whether they're in detention.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department body that oversees the nation's immigration courts, could not say precisely how many hearings had been canceled. But it said more than 415,000 immigrants who are not in detention have cases pending.
Hearings are being rescheduled for Nov. 29, 2019, as a way to keep cases on the docket, said Lauren Alder Reid, legislative and public affairs counsel for EOIR. Most, however, are likely to receive other dates — either earlier or later, as docket times become available, she said.
Simmons said thousands of non-priority cases in Denver alone have had hearings canceled.
When the surge hit last summer, immigration courts there were already short two judges because of retirements. Two of the three remaining Denver immigration judges are hearing, via videoconference, cases of families detained in a new detention center in South Texas. The third Denver judge is hearing cases involving unaccompanied minors who've been placed with relatives.
David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia who worked for two Democratic presidents, criticized Congress and the Obama administration for not funding more immigration judges.
"You fund more investigators, more detention space, more border patrol, almost all of these are going to produce some kind of immigration court case," he said. "You are putting a lot more people into the system. It's just going to be a big bottleneck unless you increase the size of that pipeline."
San Antonio's immigration courts, which like Denver's are handling a large number of unaccompanied children and detained families, also have seen the cancellations of all non-detainee hearings, which are not considered priority.
Lance Curtright, a San Antonio lawyer, said hearings have been postponed for hundreds of cases his firm is handling. Longtime green card holders facing deportation over minor crimes or procedural issues are going to suffer needlessly, along with their families, he said.
"This is their home, and they don't know if they are going to be forcibly removed from it," he said. "And they are not going to get any resolution on that until 2019."
Limbo does not jeopardize all immigrants facing deportation as many are still able to work under existing permits until their cases can be heard. The delays might even provide some immigrants with weaker petitions more time to build a stronger case.
"Moving the docket back four years to some people will be devastating," said Anthony Drago, an immigration lawyer in Boston. "To other people it's, wow, four years in the United States."
Asylum seekers, who often have had to leave behind families in countries ravaged by war and violence, are among the hardest hit, said Bryan Johnson-Xenitelis, an immigration lawyer in New York. His firm has had eight case hearing cancellations so far, including that of a severely disabled young man from Ukraine with an asylum petition. Another dozen asylum claims at his firm have not been scheduled.
Many fear that cases like these will linger indefinitely at the bottom of the pile if there's another wave of Central American migrants.
"Starting May or June, there is likely going to be another surge of unaccompanied kids or families," said Manoj Govindaiah, a lawyer for the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. "Presumably this issue is going to continue."