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 had 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 would be rescheduled when the shutdown ended.
“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.
“I told you it was closed,” said his friend Roberto Martinez, 29, who had reluctantly driven him to Arlington from Manassas.
The country’s longest-ever government shutdown, launched by President Trump in the name of border security, ended Friday — at least temporarily. But the damage to the administration’s immigration enforcement efforts will likely last for years.
During the shutdown, immigration jails remained filled with more than 40,000 detainees a day, on average, and officials said Border Patrol agents and immigration fugitive teams were still arresting people, despite working without pay.
But the agents were pouring new cases into an immigration court system that was 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. Then three-fourths of the roughly 400 immigration judges were furloughed, and more than 80,000 cases were canceled.
The hearings will probably 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.
Despite dire warnings from former Homeland Security secretaries that the shutdown could affect public safety, current DHS officials, union representatives and federal contractors insisted that immigration enforcement had not been affected.
“The mission is still getting done,” said Manuel Padilla Jr., director of the DHS-led Joint Task Force-West and until recently the Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley. “Everyone is still gung-ho.”
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council and a vocal Trump supporter, said few Border Patrol agents had been furloughed and there had been no uptick in retirement, attrition or sick leave.
But with employees absorbing their second missed paycheck Friday, “there is a lot of angst among agents,” he said. “Obviously they do want to get paid. They have bills and mortgages.”
One concern Judd did have, however, was that the shutdown could set back the Border Patrol’s ongoing recruitment efforts, one of many immigration-related duties the U.S. government delegates to private contractors.
Some contractors said they got paid during the shutdown, while others did not. Shelters for migrant youths detained at the border were fully funded, but some private immigration jails said they had to operate without federal money.
CoreCivic, which jails thousands of undocumented immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, remained opened and was still paying its employees, said Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for the for-profit firm. But its invoice payments were delayed by the shutdown.
Immigration judges were still hearing the cases of detained immigrants. But hearings for immigrants not in federal custody — as many as 95 percent of all cases — were canceled, according to the immigration judges’ union.
“It’s just chaos,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle. “The irony is that [Trump’s] talking about the need to move these cases forward. . . . Now they’re backing up the system so much that cases are going to be continued for two more years.”
California, which has drawn the president’s ire for being a “sanctuary state,” had the most cancellations, with nearly 10,000 as of Jan. 11, according to the TRAC report. New York was next with more than 5,000 cancellations, and Virginia and Maryland ranked in the top 10 states.
Immigrants with weak cases were thrilled about the cancellations, which essentially amounted to a reprieve from deportation, lawyers said. But many have solid cases that have already taken years to resolve, and were hoping the hearings would lead to work permits or green cards and citizenship so they can bring their families to the United States.
A mother and her two children from Pakistan had been waiting for a green-card approval for two years when their court date was canceled, said Mana Yegani, a Houston immigration lawyer. “She is so sad and just in utter limbo,” Yegani wrote in a message.
Arturo Burga, an immigration and criminal lawyer in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., said the cancellation of a hearing for two of his clients meant “our prayers were answered.”
The couple, who are from Mexico, had faced a deportation hearing on Jan. 4, and they had wanted to delay so they could apply for legal residency through their children. A daughter died unexpectedly this month, so now they must apply through their son, a U.S. Marine. But he’s 19, and cannot sponsor them until he turns 21. By the time the hearing is rescheduled, he may be old enough.
As part of its effort to resolve immigration cases, the Trump administration had set quotas for immigration judges and vowed to cut the backlog in half by next year. But the shutdown “clearly and seriously impedes the ability to slash any backlog,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and an immigration judge in Los Angeles.
Rescheduling weeks worth of cases — some of which are complex — will be like “a huge game of Tetris,” she said.
In Arlington on Thursday, immigrants said they were worried whether they would be properly notified when their cases are rescheduled. If they miss their new court date, they could be ordered deported in absentia, effectively turning them into fugitives.
“It’s very important, “ Guerrero said. “I can’t miss it.”