Originally Published in The Los Angeles Times.
By ELVIA MALAGON
JAN 31, 2019
After dangerously cold weather shuttered immigration court in Chicago this week, attorneys were scrambling to get the word out to people in deportation proceedings.
Attorneys were worried that a wave of immigrants — some who could be traveling from Wisconsin or Indiana — could show up to court Thursday because Jan. 31 was a date on notices to appear that were issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The notices are not correlated with actual hearings because the court has not scheduled them, said Kevin Raica, a Chicago-based attorney who is also part of the local chapter of American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The confusion over hearings in immigration courts across the country has been a problem for months. Last fall, the immigration court in Chicago saw long lines of people in deportation proceedings who were given this type of notice.
But this week, the confusion was complicated in Chicago by the polar vortex cold snap that caused temperatures to plummet to 23 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of minus 52, according to the National Weather Service. Most of the city came to a halt as classes were canceled, courts were closed and institutions shuttered.
“They are going to travel long distances at the expense of themselves often when there is no reason for this to happen,” Raica said.
The immigration court in Chicago was closed Wednesday and Thursday because of the cold snap, said Gail Montenegro, spokeswoman for the court. That prevented the government from proceeding with hearings for people who thought they were supposed to show up to court on those days.
“In some cases, the cases had been rescheduled to another date, but the lapse in appropriations prevented the immigration courts from issuing new hearing notices far enough in advance of the prior hearing date. In other cases, EOIR did not receive the Notice to Appear (NTA) in a timely matter,” according to a statement from the division that oversees immigration court.
The division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, established a hotline, 800-898-7180, for people who were given notices to appear to verify whether the date is correlated with an actual scheduled hearing.
Raica said those who are represented by an attorney and received a Jan. 31 hearing date likely called the number, but those who don’t have representation might not even know about the number. The consequences for not showing up to an actual immigration court hearing can be severe and result in a person being deported.
“We are more worried about the people who received these notices and don’t know how to contact the court,” Raica said.
It all stems from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that determined that notices to appear in immigration court must include a time and date. Before that, notices often said the hearing date was yet to be set.
In December, the government issued a memo about the notices. The divisions within the Department of Homeland Security are supposed to have access to a scheduling system that officials expect to alleviate the complications, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.