Mario Guerrero raced up the slick sidewalk to the Arlington, Va., immigration court on Thursday. Everyone had told him his deportation hearing was cancelled, but he couldn’t believe it.
Neither could Ariel Lopez, 44, who stuffed his immigration papers in a plastic bag and hopped on a bus to get there. Or a 71-year-old woman from Guatemala, who drove from Richmond, Va., with her daughter and would not give her name.
They arrived at a towering office building on South Bell Street to find a skeleton staff — just four judges instead of about 15 — and a court that has shrunk from three floors to one. The only hearings were via television for immigrants in detention centers. Signs taped to the walls said the rest will be rescheduled when the shutdown ends.
“I’m not on the list,” said Guerrero, 32, a construction worker from Puebla, Mexico, searching for his name on a hearing schedule posted on the wall.
The nation’s longest-ever government shutdown — launched by President Donald Trump in the name of border security — placed the administration’s immigration enforcement efforts on a collision course.
Immigration jails remain filled with more than 40,000 detainees a day, on average, and officials say Border Patrol agents and immigration fugitive teams are still arresting people, despite working without pay. But the agents are pouring new cases into an immigration court system that has been nearly paralyzed by the shutdown.
Before the government’s partial closure, the courts were grappling with a historic backlog of more than 800,000 cases. Now three-fourths of the roughly 400 immigration judges have been furloughed, and more than 80,000 cases have been cancelled.
The hearings will likely be rescheduled months or years down the road, undermining the administration’s goal of unclogging the court system and speeding the resolution of cases.
“They are just digging a bigger and bigger hole,” said Susan Long, co-director of Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which publishes court data.
Department of Homeland Security officials, union representatives and federal contractors insisted this week that immigration enforcement had not been affected, despite warnings from former DHS secretaries that the shutdown could affect public safety.