Hundreds show up for immigration court hearings that turn out not to exist

Hundreds of immigrants carrying official notices ordering them to appear for deportation hearings showed up in at courthouses across the country Thursday, only to discover that thehearings had not actually been scheduled.

Immigrants stood in long lines in San Francisco, packed Arlington, Virginia’s immigration court, and battled traffic in Miami before court officials at a folding table turned them away. Earlier this week, a Canadian man facing deportation drove two hours from Virginia toward snowy Buffalo, New York, until his lawyer called saying his hearing notice was invalid and he should turn around.

“I feel we wasted the day,” said Maria Bracho de Ferroil, 39, a Venezuelan national who traveled more than an hour to Miami immigration court Thursday with her husband, Vladimir Ferroil, 37, a Cuban citizen. “But we had to show up to avoid being deported.”

Leslie Villalobos, 26, an immigrant from Mexico, traveled 38 miles to the Miami court.

“No one told me if it was canceled or why,” she said, holding her baby daughter in her right arm as her toddler son pulled on her left. “All these people were scheduled on the same day for nine o’clock in the morning. I don’t understand.”

Similar confusion erupted on Oct. 31, when hundreds of immigrants turned up for court nationwide and were told they did not have hearings scheduled.

Immigration lawyers said the “fake dates” were issued by the Trump administration following a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said all notices to appear in immigration court must include a date, time and location.

The Department of Homeland Security’s border and immigration agencies – which routinely give hearing notices to immigrants – began issuing notices with dates and locations provided by the Justice Department’s immigration courts, officials said.

Homeland Security is supposed to also file the notices with the courts, and immigrants should then receive written notices in the mail once their real hearings are scheduled. Immigrants can also check the court’s bilingual hotline for case updates.

But in hundreds of cases, lawyers and officials said, Homeland Security never filed formal charges, so the hearings were never scheduled – adding to the confusion in a court system that faces a historic backlog of more than 800,000 cases.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association said it received reports this week of fake dates being issued to immigrants in Arlington, Virginia; Atlanta; Dallas; Miami; Omaha; San Diego; and San Francisco. Hearings were also scheduled in Buffalo, New York, and Chicago, but those courts were shuttered because of bad weather.

The episode renewed calls for the courts, which are run by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, to be separated from the Justice Department.

“The immigration courts have demonstrated they are utterly incapable of delivering justice and complying with the rule of law,” said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel for the lawyers association.

Federal immigration and court officials did not answer questions Thursday about how many people were affected.

Court spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly issued a statement saying Homeland Security now has access to the court’s electronic case-scheduling system, and “EOIR does not expect any further recurrence of this type of situation.”

The court said some cases ostensibly assigned for Thursday were never scheduled because of the recent, record-long government shutdown. In other cases, the court said, Homeland Security did not file the proper charges in time.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea attributed filing delays largely to the government shutdown and said: “All appropriate parties are working together to resolve this issue going forward.”

(Separately, the five-week shutdown caused the postponement of more than 80,000 additional hearings, according to TRAC, a Syracuse University organization that publishes court data.)

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 last year that “common sense” dictates that immigration court notices should include hearing dates and times. However, the court did not call for the government to assign dates that were not actually scheduled.

“Given today’s advanced software capabilities, it is hard to imagine why DHS and immigration courts could not again work together to schedule hearings before sending notices to appear,” said the ruling. The case was Pereira v. Sessions.

Immigration lawyers questioned why federal officials hadn’t fixed the problem last year.

“It pains these individuals to have to take the day off work,” said James Reyes, a Manassas, Virginia-based immigration lawyer who said he saw dozens of immigrants in Arlington, Virginia, court Thursday.

“At some point you’ve got to ask: Are they playing with people’s lives on purpose here, just because they can?” said Hassan Ahmad, an immigration lawyer and a Virginia House of Delegates candidate, whose Canadian client thought he had court in Buffalo, New York, this week.

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