The Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review declared “operations as usual” for proceedings involving non-detained immigrants on Sunday night.
The decision comes after Seattle’s immigration court was shut down last week after a report of second-hand exposure to coronavirus; it will remain shut until April 10. The order states that master calendar dates, which often include dozens of people in a single courtroom, will be postponed until April 10 as well. Filings and hearings in the 67 other immigration courts across the country will operate as scheduled, including in coronavirus-affected cities such as San Francisco and New York City. Such proceedings include asylum interviews and green-card applications.
A collective of immigration judges and lawyers, as well as the union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors, have called for the immediate shutdown of immigration courts for at least two to four weeks.
“Our nation is currently in the throes of a historic global pandemic. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is insufficient and not premised on transparent scientific information. The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our Immigration Courts,” the groups said in an official statement. An epidemiologist and public health expert the groups consulted said, “It is irresponsible to do anything other than close our courts until sufficient testing has been conducted.”
The efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus in immigration courts has been lackluster, as also evidenced by confusion and outrage over CDC posters placed in courtrooms last week. The National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) suggested that their judges place posters, which identified common symptoms of coronavirus and explained steps to stop the disease’s spread, up in their courtrooms last Monday. The acting chief immigration judge, Christopher A. Santoro, sent an email to judges expressing the Trump administration’s stance on the posters: “Per our leadership, the CDC flyer is not authorized for posting in the immigration courts.” The directive has since been reversed, allowing the posters to be put up.
Immigration courts already have a backlog of about 1 million cases, and the response to coronavirus’ toll on the existing backlog and future proceedings will be seen in the months to come.
Sources: Department of Justice 03/15/20; Associated Press 03/13/20; Buzzfeed News 03/15/20; National Association of Immigration Judges 03/15/20; Slate 03/10/20.