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For hundreds of thousands of U.S. asylum seekers, a ‘life in limbo’

The U.S. has a backlog of hundreds of thousands of immigration cases. José represents one of them: After fleeing violence in his birth country of Nicaragua, he requested U.S. asylum and passed a credible fear interview. But with a scheduled hearing in immigration court canceled due to the government shutdown, his future here is uncertain. Tomeka Weatherspoon of Houston Public Media has the story.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The immigration case backlog has been steadily growing, and the recent government shutdown only made the problem worse.

    From Houston Public Media, Tomeka Weatherspoon has the story of one man caught in the middle, his future unknown.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    Since fleeing his home in 2017, Jose has had a lot of time to think.

  • Jose:

    I remember with tears in my eyes I left. I can't anymore.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    He fled violence in his birth country, Nicaragua. Then, two months later, he crossed over the U.S. border and requested asylum.

  • Jose:

    I trusted in God that the opportunity would come. And here I am. Thanks to God I'm here, but now this country is closing its doors on me.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    Although he passed a credible fear interview and was allowed to enter the country, Jose has been unable to get a Social Security card or driver's license. Until his case is heard in immigration court, his life in limbo, according to his attorney, Ruby Powers.

  • Ruby Powers:

    He's gone through a lot. And I think he really wants to make a change. He's been putting his life on hold, waiting for his hearing.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    Jose is just one of more than 800,000 immigration cases in a backlog that's grown exponentially. After more than a year of setbacks, Jose had a hearing scheduled in immigration court on January 8 in Houston, Texas.

    But that morning, his attorney notified him that his hearing had been canceled. That same evening, President Trump addressed the nation.

  • Donald Trump:

    My fellow Americans, tonight, I'm speaking to you because there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    With the partial government shutdown over, but another one looming three weeks away, the Trump administration and Congress are still debating what to do about border security.

    People wanting to immigrate to the U.S. are caught in the middle. During the shutdown, tens of thousands of immigration court hearings were canceled.

  • Geoffrey Hoffman:

    I don't think there's any question that we have a very dire crisis in terms of our immigration system.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    Geoffrey Hoffman is the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Houston.

  • Geoffrey Hoffman:

    We have a humanitarian crisis with respect to people who are frustrated in terms of trying to get their asylum cases heard. They — your client may not be able to hear or get his case heard until 2021 or 2022.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    For his part, Jose has no idea when his hearing will take place. He worries that, due to the shutdown, his case will go to back of the line. His biggest fear is being sent back to Nicaragua.

    What do you think would happen if you had to return to your home country?

  • Jose:

    I fear for my life, for the happiness I have here. Nicaragua is the last country I would step foot on. I would rather go to another planet.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    For now, Jose sits and waits.

    Even with the government now open, it's unclear how immigration courts are going to address his case and hundreds of thousands of other immigration cases.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tomeka Weatherspoon in Houston, Texas.

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