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Immigration Courts Resisting Coronavirus Closures

— March 18, 2020

In a rare show of unity, immigration judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have demanded immigration courts postpone cases until after coronavirus can be controlled.

Even though President Donald Trump has declared a state of national emergency, immigration courts are among the last vestiges of governance to remain unaffected by coronavirus.

According to POLITICO, judicial bodies across the country have been quick to respond to coronavirus. State- and federal-level courts have either scaled back services or closed outright; earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it’d indefinitely postpone oral arguments on a slew of upcoming cases.

Immigration courts, however, have made only minor operational adjustments. The lack of urgency has disturbed judges, attorneys and migrants, as well as many prosecutors.

Court observers have told POLITICO that proceedings have yet to halt—and proceedings, in many cases, entail groups of migrants being shuffled into hearings, with others “funneled” into crowded holding cells.

Under President Trump, ICE has significantly increased deportations of undocumented migrants with non-criminal records. Image via Wikimedia Commons/public domain. No uploader information given.

The case is the same, POLITICO says, even in California—a state that’s placed restrictions on residents’ ability to gather in public spaces and travel. In some parts of the state, there are already shelter-in-place orders in effect.

Robyn Barnard, an attorney with Human Rights First, said on Tuesday that immigration courts are increasingly cramped and dangerously unsanitary.

“Update from SD #MPP court: we are the only attys here so far w 50 asylum seekers filing in to the small waiting room,” Barnard wrote on Twitter. “No hand sanitizer. One paper sign telling ppl to wash hands. So many little babies here today. #COVID19 #shutitdown #parolethemin”

POLITICO notes that immigration courts, unlike most other courts, are administered by the Justice Department rather than the broader judiciary.

On Tuesday, following the publication of POLITICO’s expose, the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review said it will begin postponing hearings for migrants not in custody. And on Wednesday, the Justice Department said it’d be shutting down nearly a dozen immigration courts through mid-April.

The department’s plan, says CNN, has been a source of confusion and frustration. The union representing immigration judges, for instance, praised Justice’s decision to postpone cases, but criticized the timing and lack of adequate explanation—many of the agency’s announcements have come last-minute, issued in the middle of the night or early morning.

“Once again, absolutely no rationale provided, and a stealth midnight move,” the National Association of Immigration Judges tweeted.

But many immigration courts remain open. Last week, CNN reported that an “unprecedented” coalition of immigration judges, ICE prosecutors, and attorneys demanded that operations cease immediately.

“Our nation is currently in the throes of a historic global pandemic,” they said in a statement. “The Department of Justice’s current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is insufficient and not premised on transparent scientific information.”


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