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Immigration courts scale back group hearings

Hearings for people in detention continue

A Customs and Border Protection officer questions immigrants along the Texas border with Mexico.
A Customs and Border Protection officer questions immigrants along the Texas border with Mexico. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Following calls by lawyers, government prosecutors and immigration judges to close courtrooms amid COVID-19 fears, the Executive Office of Immigration Review said it would postpone certain types of immigration hearings involving large groups.

The EOIR, the Justice Department agency that oversees immigration courts, specified it would delay preliminary appearances by groups of immigrants before a single judge. These “master calendar hearings” scheduled between March 16 and April 10 for non-detained immigrants will be postponed until further notice. Hearings for people in detention, however, or for migrants in the “Remain in Mexico” program would continue.

In a tweet late Friday, EOIR also announced that the Seattle immigration court, which had shut down earlier that week, would remain closed through April 10 due to the high number of coronavirus cases in that area. At the time, EOIR had scaled back master calendar hearings, in which dozens of people file in and out of a single courtroom, in 10 immigration courts across the country. It also allowed teleworking where possible.

“EOIR takes seriously the health of its employees and those with business before the immigration courts,” an agency spokesperson told CQ Roll Call via email Friday. “In recognition of the various stages of outbreak in the communities of each of our locations throughout the nation, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for our courts.”

EOIR did not respond to a request Monday for an update.

Critics have called the agency’s precautions inadequate and have sought more stringent steps to prevent the spread of the virus among courtroom employees and migrants. On this front, the National Association of Immigration Judges, which represents immigration judges, and the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association found an unlikely ally in the union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement trial attorneys. Together, the three organizations called for the complete closure of immigration courts in a statement issued Sunday.

“As of Sunday, March 15th, the DOJ has failed to institute adequate measures to protect our court’s personnel and the public during this public health crisis,” the three groups said in their joint statement. They cited a public health expert at Harvard University, Dr. Ashish Jha, who recommended a temporary closure of all immigration courts.

“He explained that it is impossible to determine which individuals who attend hearings are ill with COVID-19 virus, and stressed that people can infect others even though they are asymptomatic,” the groups said.

But even EOIR’s latest step to scale back hearings fell short for critics. EOIR’s website directs visitors to its Twitter page, but its move to postpone cases was announced on social media so late Friday that it may not have reached even prosecutors, lawyers and staff scheduled in court Monday morning.

Some critics also said that the failure to suspend the administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy hearings was particularly irresponsible: Allowing large numbers of migrants to cram into court facilities could mean they potentially will spread the virus back at camps in Mexico, where medical care is scarce.

A complete court closure — should it be instituted — will probably worsen the immigration system’s backlog of more than one million cases, but the organizations calling for it say that it is the only responsible thing to do.

“Over a year ago this administration shut down the government purely for political reasons resulting in the cancellation of over 80,000 cases. This situation was completely avoidable. We are now facing a historic global pandemic,” said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel at AILA. “This will undoubtedly contribute to EOIR’s already enormous case backlog but these are extraordinary times. Without taking these necessary steps, EOIR is endangering the public health of the litigants, EOIR employees, support staff, and the community at large.”

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