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Weeks after the government shutdown, immigrants are still waiting for cancelled hearings to be rescheduled

Immigration courts are still wading through the disruptions caused by the government shutdown, which closed the courts and effectively cancelled between 50,000 and 95,000 hearings in December and January.

Many immigrants are still waiting to have those hearings rescheduled, James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review which oversees the nation's immigration courts, told lawmakers during a hearing last week. "The courts are in the process of rescheduling those, they've been working overtime since the shutdown ended to get that done," McHenry said.

Congressman Jose Serrano, who chaired the hearing, called the delay "deeply problematic," in an email to CBS News. The nation's immigration courts reopened on January 28 after being closed for over a month during the partial government shutdown.

"It is ironic that this Administration's obsession with building a wall only increased the number of immigrants in limbo, aggravating an already serious crisis," said Serrano, who represents New York's 15th district. "There needs to be a serious effort to reschedule these hearings quickly"

Although McHenry estimated that 50,000 immigration cases were cancelled during the shutdown, others say the number could be nearly double that. According to Syracuse University's TRAC, 80,051 hearings during the shutdown were either outright cancelled or had their status left unchanged — the hearing date simply came and went without acknowledgement, leaving affected migrants to wonder what comes next.  

TRAC said the number of cancelled cases rises to more than 94,000 when it includes other factors, like "Docket Management" or "Immigration Judge Leave." 

Many hearings scheduled for the week after the government reopened were also postponed as court clerks waded through over a month's worth of filings that hadn't been touched during the shutdown. Rather than processing those documents, court administrators in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, threw them into brown cardboard boxes for clerks to deal with once the court opened, said Jeremy McKinney, an immigration attorney who serves clients in North Carolina and South Carolina.

The immigration court system, which is overseen by the Department of Justice, handles a range of cases involving non-citizens, including issuing green cards and ruling on asylum claims. The courts also serve as a necessary step toward temporary Social Security cards — needed for work permits and driver's licenses — making hearings intensely important for immigrants.

The Executive Office of Immigration Review declined to comment on the status of the courts after the shutdown.

CBS News spoke with six immigration attorneys, all of which have at least one client whose cancelled case hasn't yet been rescheduled. Many of the hearings that were have yet to be rescheduled are for migrants seeking asylum, a legal form of immigration for people fleeing persecution and threats in their home country. One immigrant was waiting on a final hearing on their asylum case, a decision that would determine whether she gets to stay in the United States or be deported.

"The impact on the client is just not knowing," said McKinney.

The cancellations have also added to the system's record-high case backlog, which McHenry estimated to be 850,000 during Thursday's hearing. Once the courts have fully realized the impact from the shutdown, immigration advocates predict it will get even bigger.

For the immigrants with cancelled hearings, getting back in front of a judge could take years. At the Newark, New Jersey immigration court, some cancelled hearings have been penciled in as far back as August 2021, said Alan Pollack, an immigration attorney in New Jersey, in an interview with CBS News. In Houston, the immigration court begun issuing dates in 2022, said Ruby Powers, an immigration attorney.

"We're getting a bit used to things taking a while and a dose of chaos," Powers said. 

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