Magazine

Government shutdown leaves immigrants in limbo

  • 16 October 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Media captionThe closure of some government offices during the US shutdown is forcing apart a pair of newlyweds from the US and India

For many refugees, the government shutdown means they may have missed their chance to see a judge - a once-a-year opportunity. The BBC's Anna Bressanin reports on an immigration crisis.

A 36-year-old asylum seeker from Mongolia was looking forward to Monday. Eight years after he had started his efforts to obtain a work permit, he would have the final hearing with the Immigration Court of Chicago.

His lawyer, Keren Zwick, expected the man (he asked to be identified only by his initial U) to walk out of the court on that day with his work permit.

But on Monday the court was closed because of the government shutdown.

Image caption The shutdown has delayed Seref Kalayci's reunion with his children, now in Turkey

He does not know when his hearing will be rescheduled. If a court date is missed under ordinary circumstances, the case is to be sent to the end of the docket. That could mean waiting another year - and perhaps longer.

All hearings at the immigration courts are cancelled during the shutdown - except individuals who are detained. The cancelled hearings include those for asylum seekers and survivors of torture, who in most cases have already been waiting for years.

"I screened U's case first as a paralegal," says Ms Zwick. "Then I went to law school and worked for two years. And now I'm representing him as a lawyer. I feel like his life is standing still, while mine has moved forward. He's still exactly there."

U was an accountant in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where he lived quietly as a gay man.

In his request for asylum in the US, he explained that he met someone at work. Unfortunately, the relationship turned violent. When U tried to escape, the man threatened to expose him as a homosexual.

Raped and beaten repeatedly for six months, U said that he did not go to the police, given the way that homosexuality is perceived in Mongolia.

He was granted a tourist visa to the US in 2005. Once he was here, he applied for asylum.

Image caption Keren Zwick, an attorney, speaks with her client from Mongolia

There are nearly 17,000 immigration cases in Chicago that are now pending - and about 316,000 cases nationwide.

Eventually, the shutdown will be over. Yet as attorney Vanessa Allyn, who works for an organisation called Human Rights First, explained: "That means that we will go back to a dramatic backlog".

"More resources are put into arresting and removing people," she said. "But the courts that have to process these cases are overloaded with work and do not have enough resources."