The federal government shutdown is worsening a record backlog of immigration cases both statewide and nationally, and creating stress for people navigating the system, local attorneys and activists say.
The U.S. government's immigration court in downtown Seattle has been closed as a result of the shutdown, which began Dec. 22 over a dispute in Washington, D.C., surrounding President Donald's Trump's insistence on funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The court's closure means even greater uncertainty for people facing deportation or seeking asylum from across Washington state, said Matt Adams, legal director of the nonprofit Northwest Immigration Rights Project.
"For many people, they've already been waiting years, and then to get to what they think is their final date only to find out their cases are again rescheduled because the court is closed is extremely upsetting," Adams said.
Some people with cases before the court have to decide whether to travel from Eastern Washington for hearings in Seattle, on the off chance the courts reopen, Adams said.
The shutdown is particularly fraught for asylum seekers, who have one year after they enter the country to make a claim that they should be allowed to stay, he said.
"People have been preparing their packets and now, all of a sudden, their year is coming up and the court's not open to receive them," Adams said. "They're worried about what that's going to mean for their case."
Most immigration judges are furloughed during the shutdown, said Lauren Alder Reid, an official with the federal Executive Office for Immigration Review.
As of Friday, 470 immigration hearings in Washington state have been canceled as a result, according to a report from Syracuse University's research center Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC.
Nationwide, the number of canceled immigration proceedings was close to 43,000. If the shutdown continues, that number could exceed 108,000 by Feb. 1, the report said.
A nationwide immigration court backlog is at a 20-year high of more than 800,000 pending cases, according to the TRAC center. It's also at a 20-year high locally, with nearly 12,000 pending cases in Washington state.
Immigration cases are continuing during the shutdown for people held at detention centers around the country, such as the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
But for people who are free while they fight their cases, the shutdown has complicated an already fraught situation.
Local activist Maru Mora Villalpando, who has been fighting the federal government's efforts to deport her for the past year, said she prepared for a hearing Tuesday only to learn the Seattle courthouse was closed.
"My lawyer sent somebody to the building to see if the court hearing was open, and he said there's nobody there," Villalpando said. "That's how we found out my court hearing had been canceled."
Villalpando, an outspoken critic of the government's treatment of unauthorized immigrants, overstayed a six-month visa in 1996 and faces deportation to Mexico. Her 21-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen, has petitioned the government to allow her to remain in the U.S.
Villalpando said she had hoped for a resolution of her case within a year, but the shutdown has complicated the timeline.
"There are so many people like me right now who remain in limbo," she said. "We were already in limbo. Now, that limbo is extending the timeline for each of us."
A recorded voice message at the courthouse informs callers that, "due to a lapse in appropriations," court operations are limited to cases of people held in detention.
"Non-detained cases will be rescheduled when the court reopens for regular operations," the message said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which prosecutes cases against unauthorized immigrants, could not be reached for comment. All of the agency's spokespeople are out of the office as a result of the shutdown, according to an automated email.