For "respondents" (non-citizens in removal proceedings) and their lawyers, Individual Hearings in Immigration Court are a big deal. Evidence must be gathered. Affidavits have to be prepared, checked, and re-checked. Witnesses must be identified, convinced to attend the hearing, and prepared for trial. Respondents practice their testimony. In most cases, the noncitizen has been waiting for many months or years for the trial date. The result of the trial determines whether the applicant can remain in the United States or must leave. When a respondent receives asylum, he is permitted to stay in the U.S. If he loses, he may be deported to a country where he faces danger. In many cases, respondents have family members here or overseas who are counting on them, and the outcome of the case affects the family members as well as the respondent. All of this provokes anxiety and anticipation. In short, Individual Hearings are life-changing events that profoundly effect respondents and their families.

So what happens when the Individual Hearing is canceled?

The first thing to know is that cancellations are common. Cases are canceled weeks, days or even minutes before the scheduled time. Indeed, we often cannot be sure that a case will actually go forward until the hearing begins.

Why does this happen?

There are many reasons, some more legitimate than others. The most common reason these days is the pandemic. Sometimes, courts close due to potential exposures. That is understandable, but as far as I can tell, these represent a small minority of Covid cancellations. I have had 50% or more of my Individual Hearings canceled over the last year and a half, and none of those was caused by a Covid exposure. I suspect that the large majority of these cancellations are due to reduced capacity to hear cases--since judges and staff are often working from home. Indeed, most pandemic cancellations seem to occur a week or two before the Individual Hearing. By that time, we've already completed and submitted the evidence, witness list, and legal brief, and have usually started prepping the client for trial. The client is also psychologically gearing up for the big event.

And then we check the online system and find that the case is off the docket.

What's so frustrating about these cancellations is that we've been living with the pandemic since early 2020. The Immigration Courts should have adjusted by now. If cases need to be canceled, why not do that several months in advance? At least that way, applicants would not build up hope, only to have that dashed when the case is cancelled at the last minute. Also, it wastes attorney time--since we will have to submit updated country condition evidence (and perhaps other evidence) later, re-prep witnesses, and potentially prepare new legal briefs, if the law changes (which is more common than you'd like to think). For attorneys who charge hourly, this additional work will involve additional costs to the applicants. So all around, last minute cancellations are harmful, and it's hard to understand why they are still so frequent.

Besides the pandemic, court cases are cancelled for a host of other reasons: Immigration Judges ("IJs") are out sick, hearings get bumped to accommodate "priority" cases or sometimes cases are "double booked," meaning that they are scheduled for the same time slot with the same IJ, and so only one can go forward. To me, all these are weak excuses for canceling individual hearings. Most courts have several judges, and so if one judge is out sick, or if a priority case must be scheduled at the last minute, another judge should be able to help out (in all but the most complicated cases, judges need little time to prepare for a hearing, and so should be able to adjudicate a case on short notice). Also, there is no excuse for double-booking cases. IJs should have a sense of their schedules and simply not overbook. In addition, all courts are overseen by Assistant Chief Immigration Judges ("ACIJs"), who should be available to hear cases if need be. Finally, given the ubiquity of video conferencing equipment and electronic records, judges can adjudicate cases remotely, and so there should almost always be a judge available to fill in where needed.

Of course, there are times when case cancellations are unavoidable, due to inclement weather, for example. But in an ideal world, these should be rare.

If the delay caused by case cancellations was measured in weeks or even months, the problem would not be so severe. But in many cases, hearings are postponed for one or two years--or even longer! This is obviously distressing for the applicant, as the long-anticipated end date is pushed back to who-knows-when. It is particularly devastating for applicants who are separated from family members. The long postponements are also a problem for the case itself, as evidence becomes stale and must be replaced with more up-to-date information, and laws change, which can require a new legal brief. In short, these delays often force the applicant (and the applicant's lawyer) to do significant extra work on the case, and this can add additional costs in terms of legal fees.

It seems obvious to me that courts do not fully appreciate the damage caused by last minute cancellations. If judges and staff (and management) knew more about the harm these cancellations cause, perhaps they would make a greater effort to ensure that hearings go forward, and that any delayed hearings are rescheduled as quickly as possible.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: