SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Thousands of immigrants seeking legalization through the U.S. court system have had their hearings canceled and are being told by the government that it may be 2019 or later before their futures are resolved.
Some immigration lawyers fear the delay will leave their clients at risk of deportation as evidence becomes dated, witnesses disappear, sponsoring relatives die and dependent children become adults.
The increase in cancellations began late last summer after the Justice Department prioritized the tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them mothers with children and unaccompanied minors.
Immigration lawyers in cities that absorbed a large share of those cases, including New York, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Denver, say they've had hearings canceled with little notice and received no new court dates. Work permits, green cards granting permanent residency status, asylum claims, and family reunifications hang in the balance.
Denver immigration lawyer David Simmons said he's never seen such a standstill in nearly 30 years of practice. "There is no maneuverability," he said. "It's as if we have no court at all."
One of Simmons' clients, Maximiano Vazquez-Guevarra, 34, recently won his appeal to become a legal permanent resident. But his case still needs to go in front of an immigration judge one last time, and it has been pulled from the docket.
Vazquez, who is from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, entered the U.S. illegally in 1998. He has been fighting deportation since 2011, when he came to authorities' attention after his second driving under the influence charge. He lives with his American wife, Ashley Bowen, and their 6-year-old daughter, and they are expecting their second child in August.
Meanwhile Vazquez's brother in Mexico is dying of kidney failure, and Vazquez can't leave the country. "It's sad," Vazquez said in a telephone interview. "I feel bad not seeing him, to say one last goodbye."
Before July, only immigrants in detention were considered a priority for the courts. Under the new policies, unaccompanied minors and families facing deportation also have priority status, regardless of whether they're in detention.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department body that oversees the nation's immigration courts, could not say precisely how many hearings had been canceled. But it said more than 415,000 immigrants who are not in detention have cases pending.
Hearings are being rescheduled for Nov. 29, 2019, as a way to keep cases on the docket, said Lauren Alder Reid, legislative and public affairs counsel for EOIR. Most, however, are likely to receive other dates -- either earlier or later, as docket times become available, she said.
Simmons said thousands of non-priority cases in Denver alone have had hearings canceled.
David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia who worked for two Democratic presidents, criticized Congress and the Obama administration for not funding more immigration judges.
"You are putting a lot more people into the system. It's just going to be a big bottleneck unless you increase the size of that pipeline," he said.
San Antonio's immigration courts also have seen the cancellations of all non-detainee hearings, which are not considered priority. Lance Curtright, a San Antonio lawyer, said hearings have been postponed for hundreds of cases his firm is handling.
Limbo does not jeopardize all immigrants facing deportation as many are still able to work under existing permits until their cases can be heard. The delays might even provide some immigrants with weaker petitions more time to build a stronger case.
Asylum seekers, who often have had to leave behind families in countries ravaged by war and violence, are among the hardest hit, said Bryan Johnson-Xenitelis, an immigration lawyer in New York. His firm has had eight case hearing cancellations so far, including that of a severely disabled young man from Ukraine with an asylum petition.