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Immigration Attorney Discusses How Shutdown Is Affecting Backlog Of Cases

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump says his border wall is a fix for the country's broken immigration system, but the standoff to fund that wall has shuttered the very courts tasked with hearing immigration cases. Some immigrants have waited years for a court appearance. And until the partial shutdown ends, they'll keep on waiting indefinitely. Jeremy McKinney is an immigration attorney. He's also a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Welcome to the program.

JEREMY MCKINNEY: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: So how are you explaining this shutdown to your clients? Because I assume some aren't familiar with U.S. policy, may not know what's going on.

MCKINNEY: The way that we've explained it is to say that, due to the government shutdown, only detained cases are being heard. But there is a unprecedented backlog of about 800,000 cases before the immigration court. And so right now, the courts are only hearing a little more than 5 percent of cases that they could hear during this shutdown.

CORNISH: Well, let me jump in here. So is this the phone call that's like, hey, Jeremy - a panic? Or is it like - what do these call sound like?

MCKINNEY: These calls sound like, I'm supposed to get the decision on my asylum application on Thursday. Is that going to happen? And then I had to explain that this case that has been going on for two and a half years will continue to go down the road to some unspecified date. It's a really tough conversation to have when that person and her minor children really don't know what the next chapter of their lives is going to look like.

CORNISH: It's a lot of question marks, it sounds like, these conversations.

MCKINNEY: Right.

CORNISH: So you're talking about this massive backlog. What does that mean for these cases right now? I mean, do they go to the back of the line? What happens here?

MCKINNEY: We're not exactly sure because we don't even know yet the exact number of hearings that have been canceled. We're waiting to hear about that. But, for example, in Charlotte, N.C., that court is 100 percent non-detained, and therefore, it is completely shut down. Hundreds of hearings have already been canceled, to be rescheduled once the government reopens. I imagine that most of them will be moved to 2020 because the 2019 docket is already full.

CORNISH: How does this affect your clients' daily lives in terms of their ability to plan for work or does it benefit them in some cases?

MCKINNEY: There is a resolution that is desired on both sides. The government, in many cases, has an interest in quick deportations. That's certainly what this administration has stated in the past. And my clients seek resolution of their case, and now that resolution is going to be prolonged by a year, in some cases, two years. In other courts, it could be even longer.

CORNISH: What's it like for you personally to hear this discussion coming out of Washington, knowing that, essentially, the standoff is about immigration, is about border security?

MCKINNEY: From what I hear, both political parties and virtually every major politician in Washington is in favor of border security. It's all about, what are we going to call it, right? I believe Senator Graham referred to the wall the other day as a metaphor. So we're really shutting down over 90 percent of pending immigration cases over a metaphor. It offends me personally. The situation was already dire, and now this shutdown is just making it all the worse.

CORNISH: Jeremy McKinney is an immigration attorney in North Carolina. He's a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Thank you for speaking with us.

MCKINNEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.