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Lapse in Government Funding Worsens Immigration Backlog


The impact of the recent partial government shutdown — the longest in United States History — was wide and varied. Federal workers missed paychecks, progress in Congress all but stopped as lawmakers debated funding for President Trump’s border wall, and even the constitutionally-mandated State of the Union address was put on hold.

Those were the obvious, widely publicized effects of the shutdown. But behind the scenes, federal lawyers found themselves scrambling as the government agencies they work with were shuttered, leaving cases unresolved, hearings missed and clients uncertain.

Ironically, immigration law was among the hardest-hit practice areas in a shutdown fueled by disagreements over immigration and border security. Already-backlogged immigration courts were forced to put cases on hold, impacting hundreds of thousands of immigrants seeking U.S. asylum or citizenship. Employers also felt the strain as funding for employment verification systems was stopped.

Immigration attorneys, like most Americans, had no way of predicting when the shutdown might end, leaving them with little information to share with clients as the weeks-long standoff continued. And now that the government is reopened, at least temporarily, lawyers say they feel pressure to make up for lost time while also planning for the possibility that ongoing immigration talks might stall, once again leaving them and their clients in a shroud of uncertainty.

Lingering effects

Though immigration law was dealt a significant blow during the shutdown, it was not the only practice area negatively impacted. Ron Nye, managing partner of Major Lindsey & Africa’s Chicago office, said he has heard reports of capital market transactions, mergers and firms with work with federal agencies finding themselves stalled.

The result, Nye said, has been missed federal reviews and a dip in billable hours, a situation that could hurt first-quarter profits. But given that the shutdown only lasted into the first few weeks of 2019, Nye said it’s not likely firms will see a significant impact on their yearly bottom line.

The question now is how fast federal agencies can get caught up and work through their backlog, Nye said, an issue that will directly impact how much work lawyers can make up. Reports from previous shutdowns indicate that sometimes, federal agencies and their lawyers can feel the effects of a lapse in government funding for long periods of time.

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