For many people not involved with the federal government, the recent 35-day partial government shutdown meant delayed visits to Smithsonian museums or canceled trips to a national park.
But for staff and clients of the Columbia-based Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, the shutdown complicated efforts for legal representation for foreign-born individuals.
Undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Howard and nearby counties come to FIRN to receive counseling, interpretation and help navigating family and immigration court systems.
But closure of the courts during the shutdown complicated those efforts, delaying some cases and increasing the network’s already-growing backlog, according to Hector Garcia, the organization’s CEO.
Over the past year FIRN took on some 4,500 cases, Garcia said; the shutdown postponed about 100 of them. Each day involved contacting clients to notify them of last-minute schedule changes.
It required “us to live a day at a time,” Garcia said.
The cases varied, he said, from visa applications to issues with domestic violence. For many, the shutdown affected people Garcia said were already under stress.
“They might not have a home. They might be alone with the children. So for people like that, it’s tough,” Garcia said.
Now that courts are open, FIRN is scrambling to reschedule and notify clients of new court dates and reviews. The process takes considerable time, as much of FIRN’s clientele is not “internet savvy” and rely on phone calls, he said.
Additionally, FIRN litigators typically have one or two days to prepare for rescheduled cases — often not even that much time.
FIRN serves people from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City.
It works not only with foreign-born individuals, but also domestic violence victims, human trafficking survivors and others, according to its website. Services include help with citizenship and naturalization, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), employment authorization and representation before the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Last year, Howard County government contributed about $640,000 of FIRN’s overall $1.1 million operating budget.
For the coming year, Garcia is hoping for more. In testimony last year, he requested the county increase funding to the nonprofit to “help us achieve sustainability. We need to be able to reduce wait times.” This week he said he hopes to receive 10 percent more from the county when the budget is unveiled in April.
With the federal government reopened — at least temporarily — the nonprofit is working to address the mounting backlog of cases.
Last year, FIRN serviced 2,500 more people than it did just two years prior, and currently the first available appointment for a new client is three months out, Garcia said.
Still, despite the backlog and concerns about resources, “we don't turn anyone away,” he said.