WASHINGTON—The Justice Department has a special time reserved for thousands of immigrants awaiting their day in court: the day after Thanksgiving in 2019.
In a fresh sign of the backlogs and delays pervasive in the U.S. immigration court system, the Justice Department has begun sending out notices to thousands of immigrants awaiting hearings that their cases will be pushed back nearly five years. The delay makes room for higher-priority cases caused last summer by a surge in unaccompanied minors and families crossing the border with Mexico.
The Justice Department began notifying employees in the immigration court system last week that nonpriority cases were being bumped off the court docket and would get a Nov. 29, 2019, court date, which happens to be Black Friday.
A precise figure for how many people will be given that far-off court date wasn’t immediately clear. But the number of people affected will easily be in the thousands, and could reach tens of thousands, according to people familiar with the decision.
Those bumped back in the system are nonpriority cases, which means most are living freely and not being held in detention. Most also don’t have a pressing issue needing immediate attention from an immigration judge.
The date is telling in several respects. It signals that the immigration courts, where judges and lawyers often complain of an unrealistic caseload, are seeing greater delays while they try to resolve the recent surge of illegal immigrants. Also, in assigning a far-off date on which courts rarely operate on anything more than a skeleton staff, it suggests Justice Department officials see the date as more of a bureaucratic placeholder than an actual plan to hear a flood of cases that day.
Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said a delay of more than four years isn't that surprising, given the overloaded nature of the court docket that existed before the events of last summer.
“This backlog has existed for years, and Congress just doesn’t make it a priority,’’ said Mr. Chen. There are about 230 immigration judges in the country, handling more than 375,000 cases. The average time to resolve a case is nearly 600 days.
Immigration courts are unusual in that they are directly overseen by the Justice Department—meaning that, unlike federal or state courts, immigration judges are supervised and take instructions from administrative bosses.
Lauren Alder Reid, spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said the rescheduling of cases was the clear outcome of a decision made in the summer by the Obama administration to give priority to cases of unaccompanied minors, families and other urgent cases.
“This is exactly what we said was going to happen. We are seeing significant impact on our nonpriority caseload that we predicted,’’ she said.
Several people who work in the immigration court system said there is some hope and expectation that those court dates will be moved earlier once judges resolve many of the priority cases.
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