Originally Published in The New Yorker.
By Eric Lach
January 8, 2019
One of the absurd ironies of President Trump’s government shutdown, which is intended to extract money from Congress for a border wall, is that it has brought the nation’s immigration courts to a near-standstill. In his quest to erect a monument to his racist campaign rhetoric, Trump has crippled the system that processes the deportations of the very people he wants out of the U.S. Last month, immigration judges around the country received furlough notices. Clerks and other court staff have been working reduced hours or not at all. Hearings for people not currently in detention have been cancelled.
That’s not necessarily a relief to the defendants. Even before the shutdown began there was a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases in the system. Many people have waited years for their day in court. Rescheduling a hearing now might mean a delay of several more years. Until then, their status will remain uncertain.
Mana Yegani is an immigration lawyer in Houston. Despite the furloughs, courts during the shutdown have been hearing immigration cases of people currently being held by the government. Among them was one of Yegani’s clients, who was due for a final hearing on Thursday. Last week, in preparation, Yegani sent documents to the judge who had been overseeing the case. But then she ran into shutdown problems. Her case had been transferred, but no one seemed to be able to tell her where. In her frustration, this weekend, she tweeted about the situation. “I wanted to create a record of it online,” she said. “I wanted to put it out there that I’m dealing with this mess.” She spoke by phone on Monday and explained the full story. She asked that the name of her client be kept out of the story, to avoid drawing negative attention to his case. This account has been edited and condensed.
“My client is a permanent resident. He’s been in the United States since the seventies. He does have some criminal history. Possession of marijuana, probably three or four counts over various years. Two D.W.I.s. He’s worked on a farm all his life, in Texas. Smokes weed, you know? He got caught. He’s not a violent person.
“Because he’s a permanent resident, they can’t just willy-nilly deport him. We’re filing for a pardon, to see if an immigration judge will allow him to stay. He has six U.S.-citizen children. His parents are also permanent residents. He has a sister who is a citizen. Extensive family ties to the United States. Doesn’t have anyone in Mexico. So, despite the criminal history, we’re not giving up on him, we’re going to fight to see if we can win the case and keep him here.
“He’s been in immigration custody for six months now. He was serving time for a criminal case, and once he finished his time they just transferred him to immigration—they didn’t release him. His family reached out to me once he was in immigration custody.
“We have been to court on his case twice. He’s detained in Livingston, Texas, where there’s a large immigration detention facility. The two times we went to court, we were with Judge Timothy Cole, who is out of Miami. Prior to the end of the year, Judge Cole set a final hearing date—the correct terminology is ‘individual hearing.’ It’s kind of like a trial. But there’s no jury in immigration court, so it’s just a trial to the judge, where the judge makes the decision.
“We got an individual hearing date for January 10, 2019. We had been corresponding with Judge Cole. He had asked us to mail him all of our documents and submissions and motions and whatnot. I submitted birth certificates of the kids, my client’s tax returns, all the probations that he’s completed, so on and so forth. Our deadline to submit any and all documents to the court was January 3rd. The day before, we submitted this huge package. Sent it via FedEx, to insure that it got to the court on time. The postage cost about seventy dollars.
“And then on Friday, the 4th, they called me from the court in Miami. The clerk said, ‘Your case is not with Judge Cole, why did you send us this stuff?’ This was a surprise to me. I was, like, ‘Well, who is the judge?’ She didn’t know off the top of her head; she went and looked at the computer, and came back and said it was Judge Billy Sapp.
“I was just, like, Oh, God. I had a document-submission deadline. I started getting a weird feeling in my stomach, a little bit on the panic side. I said, ‘I have not been informed that the judge in this case has changed. I’ve been to court twice with the judge in Miami.’ She said, ‘Well, the government’s shut down, and things have changed,’ and, kind of, ‘Deal with it’—that was her tone of voice. And I said, ‘Is there a way that you can forward the filing to the new judge?’ They have a system where they can scan everything and then e-mail it to the judge. We’re not allowed to e-mail the judges. She was, like, ‘No, this is voluminous. We don’t have time to scan this.’ I said, ‘O.K., well, can you mail it back to me?’ And she said, ‘No, the government’s shut down, and we don’t mail anything.’
“She did give me some misinformation, because she told me that the new judge was based in Louisiana. When I got off the phone with the court in Miami, I called Louisiana. They kind of laughed at me. They were, like, ‘We don’t have any case like this in our docket. We don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.’ I was thinking, This is a mess. Because I need to get my filings to this new judge. If I show up to court and the judge doesn’t have it, he may just deport my client. Judges don’t like to hear excuses, they’re just, like, ‘Counsel, where’s your stuff?’ So I was getting really anxious and concerned. I called the Miami court back and got an automated recording saying the government is shut down, our court is closed. We called them, like, fifteen times, in hope that maybe someone is there, hearing the phone ring. By this time it’s Friday afternoon, around three o’clock. Usually people leave early on Friday.
“On Monday morning, I had court on another case. I drove about an hour and twenty minutes, got to court. I have a one-year-old baby. I left my house around 6:45 in the morning. And when I got to court they were, like, ‘Oh, court’s cancelled today, the judge isn’t here.’ But that’s a different case. This is just the mess that we’re constantly dealing with right now with immigration. While I was there, I went and talked to the clerk. She told me that Judge Sapp is in Conroe, Texas. I will have to appear in Conroe with the judge, and my client will appear via tele-video. That’s still for the 10th. It really sucks, because when you have a hearing, you want to sit next to your client. My client’s going to be sitting in a room, all alone, in the detention facility, and I will be in a courtroom with the judge. I hate that.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know if the judge will have my filings or not, so I’m just going to take an extra packet with me. If the judge doesn’t receive it, he may reset the case. I’m not sure what’s really going to happen on the 10th. So I’m preparing myself for everything.”