The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s shutdown has paralyzed immigration courts. Oh, the irony.

President Trump attends a meeting at the White House Dec. 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

IN THE name of securing the border and keeping out illegal immigrants, President Trump has opted for a partial government shutdown. Irony of ironies, that shutdown has paralyzed the nation’s immigration courts, shuttering many of them and allowing several hundred undocumented immigrants to dodge deportation orders each day the shutdown continues. They are among many hundreds of others whose cases will be postponed for years — or, in effect, indefinitely — for every day the closure lasts.

Those are among the more perverse effects of the Trump shutdown, which has resulted in many of the nation’s roughly 400 immigration judges receiving furlough orders, barring them from coming to work or hearing cases. (Judges who handle cases involving detained migrants in Department of Homeland Security custody remain at work, but not those handling non-detained migrants, whose cases are more numerous.)

The immigration courts are already massively jammed: The backlog is now 1.1 million cases. That means in the 11 days of the shutdown so far, thousands of cases have already been postponed.

With nine federal departments and several federal agencies going unfunded, here's who and what are impacted by the partial government shutdown. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Technically, those cases will be rescheduled for three or four years from now. In fact, the backlog has reached such gargantuan proportions that judges are already double- and triple-booking future court dates, like an airline overbooking flights, meaning that many cases on the docket will inevitably be postponed repeatedly. The dysfunction calls to mind the famous New Yorker cartoon in which an executive suggests: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

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In many instances, a postponement’s effects are more than administrative; they may impose real hardships. Take the example of undocumented immigrants with clean records who have been in the United States for more than a decade. An immigration judge may exempt such immigrants from the risk of deportation if they can show it would result in exceptional hardship for a spouse, parent or minor child who is a citizen or legal permanent resident. But that chance of relief is lost if, owing to a case’s postponement, the immigrant’s child turns 21, or the parent or spouse dies.

Mr. Trump has poured scorn on the immigration courts, variously suggesting that newly hired judges would be crooked and that immigrants routinely fail to appear for court hearings. In fact, there is zero evidence for the former, and the latter claim has been debunked: While many respondents do not show up for hearings, a sizable majority of them do, especially those represented by lawyers.

What distinguishes the Trump shutdown is that it contravenes the president’s own long-standing insistence on a more rational and efficient immigration system, as he himself defines it. A president who attacks “catch and release ” now embraces a policy that ensures indefinite release. A president hungry for ever more deportations now ensures that thousands of would-be deportees get reprieves. And a president who conjures migrant no-shows in courts manages to close the courts entirely.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Shunting asylum seekers to Mexico doesn’t absolve the U.S. of its duty to them

Marc A. Thiessen: On immigration, Democrats give Trump the upper hand — again

The Post’s View: Send judges, not troops, to the border

Karen Tumulty: Trump’s tweets on children dying in U.S. custody are a new low

Ali Noorani: How we can follow our laws at the border — and still be a nation of grace