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Coronavirus cases prompt DOJ to close more immigration courts

The latest closures are part of recent measures to contain the virus' spread

Razor wire lines the base of the border wall in El Paso, Texas on Aug. 23, 2019.
Razor wire lines the base of the border wall in El Paso, Texas on Aug. 23, 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call)

The Justice Department closed two more immigration courts after announcing Tuesday that someone in each court system had tested positive for coronavirus, but more than three dozen other immigration courts remained open across the country despite widespread calls for their closure.   

The Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration court system, initially said it had shut down an immigration court in New York City because of “a person with a confirmed case of coronavirus in EOIR space.” The agency closed the city’s other two immigration courts earlier this month.

In a tweet Tuesday, it referred all New York-related filings to the closest immigration court in Elizabeth, N.J., but hours later EOIR again took to Twitter to announce that courtroom was being shut down, too. 

“Due to a report of the presence of an individual with a test-confirmed coronavirus diagnosis, the Elizabeth Immigration Court will be closed for the rest of the day,” the agency said. 

The latest closures are part of recent measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. EOIR has suspended the hearings of all nondetained individuals until at least April 10. It also has closed, altogether, 12 other immigration courts. In addition to New York, the others are in Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; Louisville, Ky.; Memphis, Tenn.; Newark, N.J.; and Los Angeles.

However, more than 40 other immigration courts across the country remained open Tuesday despite warnings from state and local government officials and pleas by the National Association of Immigration Judges, a union that represents more than 400 immigration judges, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement trial attorneys.

“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 a joint statement last week.

Members of NAIJ and the immigration lawyers group have reported multiple accounts of immigration court staffers around the country experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and individuals taking it upon themselves to self-quarantine to prevent the possible spread of the coronavirus.

NAIJ also has penned several letters to EOIR Director James McHenry and other government officials calling for the complete closure of the immigration courts. The organization has repeatedly expressed frustration at EOIR’s lack of transparency on this issue. 

George Terezakis, a New York-based immigration attorney, said he found it “inexplicable” that immigration courts remained open in a time of widespread health crisis.

“All of the courts in the country need to be closed, because you have people traveling to courts and potentially exposing people to this virus,” Terezakis told CQ Roll Call.

He said some immigration attorneys have tried to telework to limit in-person contact with clients when possible.

“The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our Immigration Courts,” it said in a statement issued last week.

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