MIAMI (AP) - The already backlogged immigration courts faced more hurdles Thursday when hundreds of immigrants arrived with government-issued notices to appear in court for hearings that were never scheduled.
U.S. immigration officials blamed the government shutdown and the extreme winter weather for the confusion about immigration court hearings. The part of the Justice Department overseeing immigration courts said some immigrants with notices to appear Thursday would not be able to proceed with those hearings.
In Miami, immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala who recently requested asylum in the United States arrived to a glass downtown court building only to be turned away by court personnel. They were told they were not scheduled to appear, contrary to what their government-issued document said.
Similar backlogs have occurred nationwide since a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling said that under the law notices given for immigrants to appear in court need to include a time and date. Before that June ruling, the Department of Homeland Security would issue undated notices, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review would set the hearings.
In an emailed statement, the Immigration Review office said the shutdown prevented immigration courts from issuing new hearing notices. Weather-related closures this week also slowed the agency's processing of cases. The agency also said in some cases, courts didn't receive the required paperwork.
However, the American Immigration Lawyers Association said at least some of the confusion rested with the Department of Homeland Security for issuing notices with "fake times and dates" simply to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court decision.
It was not clear how many people were affected Thursday, but some migrants in Phoenix were turned away after being told their cases had not been scheduled.
"It's very difficult to track. We are aware of hundreds of cases affected by this issue," said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
In San Francisco, hundreds of people overflowed onto the sidewalk in a line snaking around the block outside an immigration office, many holding notices to appear for hearings that would not proceed because of administrative delays.
Some of the immigrants who believed they had hearings Thursday brought small children with them. Nora Palma, a 22-year-old from Honduras who arrived in Texas in July with her 5-year-old daughter, was told her hearing was canceled, but she were also told to return later to schedule a new one.
"They say it's hard to get your papers but I want to try because I want to give my daughter a better life. In Honduras, I was afraid for her life," Palma said.
In Miami, Mynor Diaz-Berduo, a 29-year-old from Guatemala, said it took him two hours by cab from Stuart with his 10-year-old son. A court employee standing outside the building asked him for the document ordering him to appear in court. She took it inside to verify, and then she returned with fruit snacks for the boy and news that Diaz-Berduo's hearing had not been scheduled.
"It was difficult to get here and now they tell me I will get another date in the mail," Diaz-Berduo said.
Dania Rivas, a 20-year-old immigrant from Honduras, traveled two hours to Miami from Islamorada in the Florida Keys, only to be told she did not have a hearing scheduled in the system.
"They just lied to us, making us waste our money and time," Rivas said.
Separately, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the overflow of hearings scheduled Thursday had been expected due to the shutdown.