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Black Friday At Immigration Court: Migrants Mistakenly Show Up For 5-Year-Old Court Date

Bonnie Petrie | Texas Public Radio
More than 100 migrants showed up at immigration court in downtown San Antonio on Black Friday to discover their court dates had been postponed until 2021.

A line snaked around the building that houses immigration court in downtown San Antonio early Friday morning. More than 100 people showed up for a court date that was set five years ago, then postponed. These migrants didn’t get the message. 

President of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Judge Ashley Tabaddor, said this all started in 2014, when there was a surge of unaccompanied minors at the border, and the Obama Administration wanted to deal with those cases quickly. 

Executive Director of American Gateways, Rebecca Lightsey, tells a migrant woman scheduled for a hearing on November 29, 2019 that her case has been postponed until 2021.

“So in spite of the fact that we had hundreds of thousands of cases pending on our docket,”  Tabaddor said. “They decided they wanted to have cases of unaccompanied minors as well as adults with children who were recently apprehended at the border in front of the line to send a strong law enforcement message.”

The problem with that, Tabaddor said, is they had to figure out what to do with the hundreds of thousands of cases that were already pending. She said the administration decided to reschedule those cases for many years in the future, and they would figure out what to do about them then.

That future date was Nov. 29, 2019.

“That’s how hundreds of thousands of cases got pushed to that date, so that we could accommodate these recent cases that were cutting into line,” Taboddor said.

Over the years many of those cases have been resolved, Tabaddor said, but not all of them. The remaining cases were pushed to 2021, but not everyone got the message.

That’s how more than 100 people ended up at immigration court at 8 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, with no judges to hear their cases. 

Rebecca Lightsey is the Executive Director of an organization of legal advocates for migrants called American Gateways, and she was there bright and early Friday with a handful of volunteers to meet those migrants. She and the volunteers explained to those who showed up that their court date had been postponed, took their names so they had proof they had been there, and explained that new hearing dates would be set for 2021.

“Some people were surprised that they came for no reason,” Lightsey said. “But they were grateful that there was some process in place and that they could verify that they were here.”

With the hearing dates pushed down the road for two more years, and no evidence that immigration caseloads will be any lighter by then, what are the chances this could happen again?

“We hope that, after this experience the new date will not be this chaotic and the hearings will either have taken place or will be rescheduled ahead of time,” Lightsey said.

Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.