Government Shutdown 101: What Does It Mean for Migrants and Refugees?

It’capitol 300s common knowledge that the federal government shut down at midnight September 30.  But now many of us are now wondering what the shutdown means for migrants and refugees and their families, friends, congregations and communities.

While significant immigration enforcement activities, including immigration detention, enforcement and border security functions of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection, will remain in place, the government shutdown will have many harmful effects on the migrants and refugees LIRS walks alongside.

Several important federal agencies and services that directly impact migrants and refugees are unavailable or reduced because of the shutdown:

  • Immigration courts operated by the Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review will be operating at reduced capacity, adding to already lengthy backlogs. All hearings for non-detained individuals before the immigration courts are cancelled and new filings are limited to matters involving detained non-citizens. Individuals who have already been waiting months or years for a hearing will experience even longer wait times for a rescheduled court date. These hearings include asylum petitions and cases involving survivors of torture, among other critically important matters.
  • Legal Orientation Programs provided by the Department of Justice to some individuals in detention awaiting proceedings before the immigration courts have been told to stop working.  Without the basic legal information provided by these programs, more individuals will be forced to appear before immigration courts without understanding the charges against them or their eligibility for relief.  Furthermore, the legal service organizations that provide this sometimes lifesaving information are facing significant financial shortfalls based on the termination of these programs.
  • Oversight and transparency functions within the DHS are operating at a reduced level, such as ICE’s community outreach unit and DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. E-Verify, the electronic employment verification system operated by DHS will not be available, meaning employers will be unable to electronically verify an employee’s eligibility to legally work in the United States and individuals will be unable to dispute any technological errors while the government is shut down.
  • Travel for refugees approved to resettle in the United States is suspended through October 21.  Fortunately, exceptions may be made for individuals at extraordinary risk, but thousands of refugees and their families who were expecting to travel to the U.S. this month are now uncertain about when they will be welcomed in the U.S. and when they can reunite with family and loved ones.
  • The Department of State will delay the processing of visas to the United States and passport applications.

Several key functions will remain available:

  • The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will continue to process green card applications.
  • The ICE community helpline that allows detainees and their families to report concerns about treatment or conditions of detention is operational.
  • Immigration court proceedings for non-citizens in detention will continue.

We pray for all migrants and refugees experiencing the harmful effects of the government shutdown, particularly families like the family of Didier Vakumba, a doctor who fled his native Congo and recently won his asylum case. Mr. Vakukmba is waiting for the signature of one more judge to fly his family, including one child with a brain tumor, to the United States. Because of the shutdown, the court was shut down and the Vakumba family remains separated.

Image credit: Diliff

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  1. Stanley O. Foster MD, MPH says:

    The government shut down is severely hampering the work of the immigration system and the immigrants themselves. Congressional short sightedness in terms of the responsibilities of governance and the harmful effect of absent government services on the poor and needy is unjust, wrong, and in my assessment evil.


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