Updated Oct 2, 2013 - 12:36 pm
Shutdown closes some immigration courts in Arizona
PHOENIX -- Many immigration courts, including those handling deportations in Arizona, were closed Tuesday as a result of the government shutdown.
Although court functions that support immigrants who are in custody remained open, immigration courts in Phoenix and Tucson were closed. This means immigrants who are not detained and had deportation hearings scheduled on Oct. 1 or the days following will not have to show up for court.
"People who had hearings set for today, some of them were likely set three, four, five years ago," said immigration attorney Margarita Silva.
Silva believes the government shutdown will cause immigration courts' backlogs to extend even further in Arizona.
"Immigration courts have been trying to clear their dockets for years now," she said.
According to Silva, that's one reason why courts have shifted to a system to prioritize criminal cases; people who are repeat border crossers and not necessarily those simply illegally in the U.S.
"This is certainly going to set back the whole system." she said.
The reason why these courts are affected by the government shutdown is because they are funded by the Department of Justice. Other immigration services have not been affected, especially those offices processing visas and passports. Those offices are mainly funded mostly by user fees.
"When you apply for a green card, when you apply for citizenship, those are the fees that generate that office and so they are still open," Silva said.
Although immigration offices under the Department of Homeland Security, which process visas and citizenship requests, are still open, some services are not available, according to the agency's website. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informed customers via their site if an office is closed, USCIS will reschedule all appointments once they are able to resume operations.
U.S. consulates and embassies around the world are still open, for now. That means Arizonans awaiting interviews or appointments at such offices for immigration purposes can still expect to have their cases processed. However, it's unclear for how long those offices will stay open.
Silva has clients with appointments scheduled this week at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Although citizenship services were offered in that office Tuesday, she worried it won't be for long.
"At least for a couple of weeks, but if this shutdown goes longer than that I expect, at some point, even regular visitors' visas and other types of visas will not be processed."
For immigrants looking to begin their immigration journey and start filing documents, Silva believed the shutdown shouldn't keep them from doing so. The problem is for people already in the process who are scheduled to leave the country to continue processing their immigrant status visas.
"I'm going to probably suggest to those people, 'Don't go at this time,'" she said. "Let's postpone it until we can see when the funding is going to come back."
Silva recommended anyone worried about their immigration case to start by searching the status of their case on any immigration office that is still active. Those who already have hearings or appointments scheduled should contact the immigration office before heading out in case those are closed.
Martha Maurer, News Editor