Immigration judges can grant asylum, green cards or other forms of relief — or order someone deported for breaking the country's immigration laws. About half of immigrants were given deportation orders in immigration court rulings handed down since October, according to a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The courts overseen by the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review nearly always have long wait times for hearings. As of January, more than 360,000 immigration court cases were pending for an average of 573 days, according to TRAC.
Oscar, who came to the country as a 17-year-old last year from El Salvador, has been waiting for a decision on whether he can continue to live with his sister in Los Angeles - or be sent back and face street gangs that killed his mother and threatened to kill him if he didn't join their ranks. His lawyer requested that his last name not be used out of fear for his safety if he is deported.
Oscar is seeking legal status through a program that helps foreign children in the United States who have been abused or abandoned. A hearing on his case was supposed to happen in October, but now has been delayed until June or later, leaving him to worry about his future.
"I'm afraid they're going to send me back," he said.
Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks said she doesn't have two weeks open on her calendar in San Francisco's immigration court for merit hearings until June 2017. And she can't just bump people with court dates this year, because they've also been waiting for their day in court.
"You have this very delicately balanced system. Now we have this added dysfunction to cope with on top of that," she said. "I just think the ripple effect is going to be continuing for a while."
Some immigration lawyers said the shutdown caused heartache for many clients, but is par for the course in an overburdened system. Similar problems occur when a judge is sick or winter weather closes a courthouse.
"The backlog will keep on coming, whether it was shut down or not," said Andrew Johnson, an immigration attorney in New York. "You just got bad luck if you were one of the ones who were hit during that time."