A technology breakdown that struck immigration courts a month ago still is preventing staff from updating the hotline defendants use to check the status of their cases and forcing judges to mail written notices of hearings.

The Justice Department, which oversees U.S. immigration courts, wouldn't say what caused the problem, referring to it as a “hardware failure,” but San Antonio immigration attorneys said the computer system that courts use to input information and alert defendants about hearings isn't working.

It's slowed an already backlogged system, and there's a potential for judges to order immigrants deported without them knowing about it, lawyers said.

San Antonio immigration courts have put in place stopgap measures that for the most part have kept dockets moving, said attorney Andres Perez, but there's a concern defendants who don't have lawyers will miss their court date and judges will order them deported.

Justice officials don't know when the system will return to normal operations.

“Our staff is hard at work to bring everything back up to typical function, but we do not have an estimated timeline for a complete fix,” said Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the branch of the Justice Department that administers immigration courts.

Attorneys said some judges are using cassette tapes to record hearings, but Mattingly didn't respond to questions about whether the courts' ability to digitally record hearings has been interrupted or if archived recordings have been lost.

“This is just one more example of how the immigration courts have been resource starved to the point where it's almost impossible to function,” said Dana Leigh Marks the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

While enforcement agencies like ICE and the Border Patrol have seen their funding skyrocket in recent years, the budget for immigration courts has not increased at the same pace, Marks said.

When asked via email if immigration judges were being encouraged to hold off on ordering deportation for no-shows while the technology problem persists, Mattingly wrote: “Please note that immigration courts are currently providing those in court with manually generated notices of hearing, and that any delay in a respondent's appearance at a hearing may result in the hearing being held 'in absentia.' During such a hearing, an immigration judge may order the absent respondent removed.”

The courts' notification system relies heavily on a toll-free hotline, which allows those in detention centers who don't have access to computers to check on the status of their cases and when their next hearings are. A recorded message warns callers that the hotline hasn't been updated since April 12.

Immigration attorney Lance Curtright said the technology malfunctions make it harder for attorneys to figure out the status of new clients' cases.

“If a potential client comes to see you and they don't know exactly what happened, you need to call this phone line to see what's going on,” he said. “There's no way to get that information unless the client has an order.”

The technology failures are resulting in delays, lawyers said, setting back what is already a backlogged court system. San Antonio has about 15,600 pending immigration court cases, according to data obtained through an open records request by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, making it the seventh-most backlogged court in the country.

The average case in San Antonio's immigration court takes about a year to be resolved, according to TRAC's data.

Once the problem is fixed, said Marks, the union president, judges and their staffs will have a new hurdle.

“Even when the computer system is restored, there is going to be an enormous amount of data that has accumulated during the time the computer system has been down, which will need to be entered into the computer system,” she said “So I imagine it will take us weeks to months to get caught up and make sure the computer system is completely caught up.”

©2014 the San Antonio Express-News