The partial federal shutdown is now in its fifth day and most agencies are still running. But at the Jacob Javits Federal Building, in Lower Manhattan, even a partial shutdown can still lead to confusion.
The 41-story building at Federal Plaza is home to the nation’s largest immigration court. No hearings were scheduled for December 24th and 25th, but hundreds of court appearances were canceled on Wednesday. The courts are part of the Department of Justice, which is among nine agencies affected by the partial shutdown.
As a result, there were very few people in line at the visitor’s entrance on Worth Street. Security is managed by contract workers, who aren’t federal employees. Several said they didn’t know which offices were open and directed people to an information desk.
Attorney Christian Benante went inside hoping to see the immigration court office. He said he normally works in financial restructuring at his law firm, Stroock & Stroock & Levan. But because he’s now planning to represent a Honduran family for free in their asylum case, he has to register with the immigration court. He went up to the 12th floor and turned right around when he learned he couldn’t be seen.
"I thought that essential workers still had to show up so I didn't think anything would interfere with the courts," he said, as he left the building.
Benante said the family’s court hearing is on January 15th and he hopes the shutdown ends before then or it could be affected.
Cases that were supposed to be heard during the shutdown will be rescheduled, only adding to the backlog of more than 105,000 cases in the Javits Building’s immigration court. But the city’s other immigration court on Varick Street remained open on Wednesday. It serves a much smaller population of immigrants held in detention.
About 420,000 federal workers are reporting for work without pay. One woman who works at the immigration court at Federal Plaza, who declined to give her name, said she’s considered an essential worker. “It’s hard but I have a job to do,” she said. “You have to have a positive attitude.”
There are a variety of agencies in the Federal Building that are not affected by the shutdown. They include The FBI, the Social Security Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which relies on fees.
“There is no problem inside,” said Shabana Kausar, who went to USCIS for work papers. She said she was in a line with about 20 people.
The Department of Homeland Security is affected by the shutdown but has essential workers including those at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which continued operating.
Many people coming to the visitor’s entrance were immigrants who had appointments with ICE, following their release from detention. They appeared just as confused as they do on regular days. They entered the gigantic building, went through metal detectors and tried to interpret pages of instructions in English.
A Honduran woman clutched an envelope on which someone had written the bus schedules from McAllen, Texas, where she had been held in detention after entering the country earlier in December. She made her way to the 9th floor office and found a busy waiting room filled with other immigrants. It was business as usual.