Immigration lawyer Alexandra Ribe started noticing recently that the court dates of many of her clients’ cases were suddenly being moved up — oftentimes without official mailed notice from the courts.

One such case involved a woman from El Salvador who had come to the United States seeking asylum after refusing to follow the orders of gang members to kill a child, said Ribe, an immigration attorney who represents clients in Maryland and Virginia and serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law.

The woman’s case had been set for 2023, but Ribe received notice on Oct. 1 that the hearing had been rescheduled for next month. With just weeks to prepare, Ribe and her client had to scramble. Her client said it’s too little time for her to save up the money needed to hire an expert to provide testimony at the trial, Ribe said. It can take months to collect the evidence for an asylum case — time that Ribe is finding that she suddenly no longer has for dozens of rescheduled trials.

“We’re just over our head drowning in these cases,” Ribe said.

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Immigration cases are being abruptly rescheduled across Virginia and Maryland, said Ribe and other attorneys interviewed by The Baltimore Banner. Some attorneys say the opening of new immigration courts and the hiring of judges — measures taken by the court system to address a massive backlog of cases — is actually adding to the confusion in the short term.

More than 50,000 cases are in the backlog for Maryland immigration courts, according to federal data published by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). For Virginia, the backlog is even larger, 70,000 cases. In the past decade, the number of immigration cases has increased dramatically nationwide. Maryland’s backlog has grown more than 900% since 2012.

COVID-19 exacerbated an already extensive backlog. For months, immigration courts were closed to hearings in the early days of the pandemic, as the amount of time it took to close an immigration case doubled, according to an analysis by TRAC Immigration.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, has tried to address the backlog by increasing the capacity of the system. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the courts since 2017 have hired hundreds of additional immigration judges and opened more than 100 new courtrooms across the country, including in Maryland and Virginia.

In October, the federal government opened two new immigration courts in Sterling and Annandale, Virginia, as a court in Arlington closed. Baltimore’s immigration court remains open while a second Maryland court began operating in Hyattsville in February.

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According to immigration attorneys in the region, it wasn’t uncommon to have some hearings rescheduled in the past. In recent months, though, the number of cases getting rescheduled in Virginia immigration courts has risen to an unsustainable rate, they say. Meanwhile, Maryland’s immigration courts are also bumping up hearing dates. There was a rush to reschedule hearings in Maryland about a year ago, and while things have calmed down since, it continues to be an issue, attorneys said.

What’s happening, explained Maryland immigration attorney Himedes Chicas, is that the newly hired judges need more work to do so they’re fast-tracking some cases.

Chicas said he’s glad to see the court’s attempts to fix the backlog, but the way it’s being handled is disorganized and affecting clients’ cases.

Asked for comment, an immigration courts spokesperson wrote in an email: “The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) constantly monitors its caseload nationwide to meet the needs of all those with business before the agency, and opening new immigration courts in high-volume areas is one way to meet our stakeholders’ needs.”

“EOIR’s focus is to increase adjudicatory and case processing capacity in a fair, expeditious, and uniform manner to reduce the pending caseload,” the statement said.

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Anam Rahman, a Virginia immigration attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, said the changes are creating “chaos” in the court system. Cases are getting reassigned to new judges, who each have different preferences on policy and procedure. Attorneys don’t know if they should appear for hearings online or in-person, or if they can expect to get extensions on deadlines for filing documents, Rahman said.

Preparing for a hearing can be time-consuming, she said. Attorneys have to request documents from other countries, hire experts who can testify about conditions in those faraway places, order psychological evaluations for their clients and prepare the individuals they represent — many of whom have been through traumatic experiences — to undergo grueling probes in court, where they will be asked to describe in detail sexual assaults, threats and violence, Rahman said.

The hearing rescheduling issue is affecting all types of immigration cases, she said, but the consequences could be especially dire for those seeking asylum.

“You could be deporting a client to their death if they don’t get the relief they require,” Rahman said.

The vast majority of people with cases in Maryland and Virginia immigration court are from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, data from TRAC Immigration show. Hundreds of thousands flee those countries for the U.S. each year to escape violence, seek economic opportunities and join family members.

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Rahman said she believes abrupt rescheduling of hearings is a national problem. The American Immigration Lawyers Association convened a group of attorneys from across the country, who had reported similar issues with hearings being rescheduled with little to no notice, she said.

Baltimore-based immigration attorney Raymond Griffith said judges and court staff should not be blamed for court issues, which stem from the number of migrants crossing the border each year and the geopolitical forces that are driving people to leave their home countries.

“They’re all good people trying to do a job,” Griffith said. “But you’re asking them to drink out of a firehose on full blast and you’re wondering why they’re choking.”

There’s no near-term or easy solution to the problem, he said.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be fixed because you will never have enough judges until people stop looking at America as the best country in the world,” Griffith said.

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Griffith said there are certain things that immigration lawyers should be doing to prepare for hearings, even if they are bumped up without mailed notice.

He checks an online portal for attorneys multiple times a day for updates to the hearing calendar. Griffith said he doesn’t wait until the last minute to gather documents. In his initial filing, he includes enough information so that if the case needs to go forward immediately, it would have a fighting chance, he said.

“[If] you had the case for five years, six years, you can’t complain” about being unprepared, he said.

In Griffith’s experience, judges at the Baltimore court are understanding and will often allow hearings to be rescheduled for a later date, he said. Many judges also are lenient with their document filing deadlines.

“Most people can’t say they didn’t have a fair shot,” Griffith said. “Judges are pretty fair. We have an appeals process. If we think the judge is wrong, we have a mechanism to right it.”

However, other attorneys said it oftentimes doesn’t make sense to start getting ready for a case that isn’t scheduled to go before a judge until years later because their clients’ cases and conditions in their home countries change over time. They also said requests to reschedule hearings for a later date are not guaranteed to be granted by judges.

Chicas, who serves as a liaison between the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Washington D.C. chapter and the Hyattsville court, said attorneys are doing their best to communicate their concerns to the court system’s leadership.

He also encouraged attorneys to check their online portals daily to monitor for hearing schedule changes. Anyone with a case in immigration court without legal representation should check EOIR’s Automated Case Information System or call 1-800-898-7180 at least once a week for updates on their cases, he said.