Fearing deportation if they didn't show up, immigrants across the country traveled to ICE-issued court dates on Thursday only to find out. Some traveled for hours and hundreds of miles for nothing, resulting in what one attorney called "mass chaos" at courthouses around the country.
Immigration attorneys told CBS News that there was confusion, crowds and long lines ataround the country on Thursday morning. ICE agents had issued thousands of Notice to Appear documents — essentially a court summons for immigration court — telling immigrants to appear in court or risk permanent removal from the U.S. It wasn't until hundreds of those people arrived at court Thursday morning that they realized those dates weren't real.
"It's mass chaos," said Ruby Powers, a Houston-based immigration attorney, in a telephone interview the CBS News. "These courts are already short staffed trying to clean up from the government shutdown's mess. It's a perfect storm."
In an attempt to comply with a Supreme Court ruling, ICE agents began issuing seemingly random hearing dates last year. Immigration attorneys knew to double-check, but immigrants without representation were left in the dark, said Eileen Blessinger, a Virginia-based immigration attorney. There's an 800-number that people can use to check on the status of their immigration cases, but there's no way that an immigrant without legal representation — more than half of all those in the immigration court system — would be aware of that option, Blessinger said in a telephone interview with CBS News.
In Arlington, Virginia, four immigration attorneys reported long lines and a packed courthouse. Immigrants had received notices to appear, but didn't actually have scheduled hearings.
Blessinger said she spoke to one woman who left her home at 3:30 in the morning and spent about $100 to make the hearing date indicated on her NTA. Not only was there no actual hearing, her case hadn't even been inputted into the court system yet.
In San Fransisco, by 9:30 a.m. hundreds of immigrants with NTAs had formed a line that snaked around an entire city block, according to Christina Reggio, an immigration attorney in the city.
By 11 a.m. the Memphis immigration court lobby was packed with "at least 100" immigrants holding NTAs with fake dates, said Erica Tamariz, a Memphis-based immigration attorney.
Rather than turning them away, court administrators assisted the immigrants, double checking that all their addresses were correct and assuring them that they'd soon receive a hearing notice in the mail. The Memphis court's jurisdiction covers all of Tennessee, Arkansas and the northern half of Mississippi.
"Some people came in from eight hours away for these phony hearings," Tamariz said in a telephone interview with CBS News. "It was clear that they had no idea they didn't actually have a court hearing this morning."
The fake notices stem from a Supreme Court ruling last summer. Prior to the decision, ICE officials used to send immigrants NTAs with date listed as "TBD" — or "to be determined." The immigration court would issue the migrant an official hearing notice later, said Brian Casson, a Virginia-based immigration attorney, in a telephone interview with CBS News.
One effect of this: The NTAs could block an immigrant's eligibility for "cancellation of removal," a legal residency status granted to some undocumented immigrants after 10 uninterrupted years of living in the U.S. An NTA, even without a hearing date, would interrupt the 10-year "clock," said Jeremy McKinney, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based immigration attorney, in a telephone interview with CBS News.
A Supreme Court ruling last summer — Pereira v. Sessions — banned the practice, requiring all appearance notices to use actual dates.
However, systems weren't in place for ICE to see the court's schedule, so ICE apparently just made up dates instead. Immigrants were instructed to appear on weekends, midnight, and dates that didn't even exist, like Sept. 31, multiple attorneys told CBS News.
The problem became so widespread that immigration attorneys told CBS News that if they have a client with a hearing date on an NTA, they assume it's fake.
In a statement Thursday morning, an ICE spokesperson said the agency was working with the Department of Justice "regarding the proper issuance of Notices to Appear." The spokesperson said the government shutdown "delayed" that process, "resulting in an expected overflow of individuals appearing for immigration proceedings today/January 31."
Hassan Ahmad, an immigration attorney in Virginia, told CBS News that a client — a green card holder who's been living in the United States for more than 50 years — lives in Northern Virginia and was told to appear in Buffalo on Thursday.
Ahmad called the Buffalo court all week to determine if the hearing was real. He learned the date was fake on Wednesday, and called the client in his car to tell him to turn around — the client was already two hours into a more than nine-hour drive.
"For someone who's facing deportation, playing around with court dates is literally playing around with their life," Ahmad told CBS News.