Lines snaked around the block outside immigration courts across the United States on Wednesday. But many people standing in them later learned they had no reason to be there.
More than 100 immigrants showed up to court carrying paperwork ordering them to appear before a judge, only to find out that their court dates hadn’t actually been scheduled, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). And as a result, uncharacteristically long lines were reported outside at least 10 immigration courts, the association said.
Lawyers told CNN it’s part of a troubling trend that shows how dysfunctional the system has become and how chaotic the Trump administration’s approach to immigration enforcement can be.
“From a humanitarian point of view, it’s sickening what you’re seeing happening here, because they’re toying with these individuals’ lives in many cases. … This is widespread, it’s national and it’s outrageous,” said Jeremy McKinney, AILA’s treasurer and an immigration attorney in North Carolina.
Attorneys say the practice began after the US Supreme Court ruled in June that notices to appear — the charging documents that immigration authorities issue to send someone to immigration court who’s accused of being in the United States illegally — must specify the time and place of proceedings in order to be valid.
Since then, immigration lawyers across the country have reported that officials are increasingly issuing such notices with so-called “fake dates,” ordering immigrants to appear at hearings that, it later turns out, were never scheduled in immigration courts.
In recent months, lawyers have reported examples of notices issued for nonexistent dates, such as September 31st, and for times of day when courts aren’t open, such as midnight.
On Wednesday, US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Daniel Hetlage said initial dates on notices issued by his agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are “based on guidance on upcoming docket dates from local EOIR, an agency within the US Department of Justice responsible for administering the immigration courts.”
In a joint statement released Friday, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice said the confusion was a result of “minor logistical errors.”
“The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are working through minor logistical errors that resulted in a number of individuals appearing for immigration court hearings that were not docketed in accordance with regulatory requirements,” the statement said. “These errors will be resolved and will not prevent these cases from being docketed properly in a timely fashion.”
Officials haven’t responded to questions about why this occurred, how many people were affected and what steps they plan to take going forward.
Notices issued for dates that don’t exist, times when court is closed
On Wednesday, reports of the so-called “fake date” practice were far more widespread than previously observed, and attorneys reported seeing larger numbers of people affected, said Laura Lynch, AILA’s senior policy counsel.
Attorneys observed long lines at courts in Baltimore, Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego. Immigrants with “fake dates” were also seen at courts Wednesday in Las Vegas and Denver, Lynch said, but lines there weren’t as long.
“The line was around the corner,” said Jorge Gavilanes, an immigration attorney in Atlanta who witnessed the crowds gathering Wednesday. “Security was unprepared for this. The court was unprepared for this. They were scrambling to check every single one of these cases to see if these cases have been already filed with this court.”
This isn’t the first time such situations have been reported.
The Dallas Morning News documented the practice occurring in court there in September.
It may sound like a small bureaucratic glitch, Lynch said, but such mix-ups can take a significant toll on immigrants’ lives.
“Clients are driving like eight hours and taking off of work in order to appear at these hearings, only to find out that it’s not the actual correct hearing date. The impact is their jobs, it’s their life, and also just the anxiety,” she said.
Attorney: ‘People were obviously fearful’
Sometimes, lawyers say they’re able to confirm with courts beforehand that certain noticed hearing dates aren’t accurate, but then struggle to convince their clients not to show up in court anyway.
“They’re so anxious to cooperate. They don’t want any problems with ICE or with the authorities,” says Rachel Effron Sharma, an immigration attorney in Atlanta who tried to explain the situation to clients this week. “They got a letter telling them to go that day. They didn’t understand how it would be possible that there would be a date that was just made up.”
Gavilanes said he’s found himself in a similar predicament, trying to reassure clients who know that if they don’t show up for a scheduled court hearing, the consequences could be severe.
“People were obviously fearful that if they miss their hearing, they were going to get deported in their absence, and they didn’t want to take that chance,” he said. “They’d rather show up at the court and have them tell them go home instead of not showing up and worry(ing) about it.”
On Wednesday, Gavilanes said he fielded questions from numerous immigrants who were baffled by the situation.
“I don’t think people really understand why this is happening,” he said.
This story has been updated to include a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.