Federal immigration system remains open despite CDC coronavirus warnings

MARCH 17, 2020 06:36 PM , UPDATED MARCH 17, 2020 07:14 PM

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As state and local courtrooms across the country have shuttered their doors, the federal immigration system remains open.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, which oversee immigration courtrooms, offices and check-in facilities, have declined to close up shop amid the coronavirus pandemic. Their decision to keep operating comes despite recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as President Donald Trump, that the public avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

“We’d much rather be ahead of the curve than behind it,” President Trump said at a White House news conference Monday. “Therefore, my administration is recommending that all Americans, including the young and healthy, work to engage in schooling from home when possible, avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people, avoid discretionary travel and avoid eating and drinking at bars, restaurants and public food courts.”

The president’s remarks followed guidance from the CDC, which advised places where people gather to consider canceling meetings of more than 10 people.

But as of Tuesday, asylum cases in court and at the asylum offices are proceeding as scheduled, despite potential risk of exposure to asylum applicants, immigration judges and asylum officers. Immigrants have reported having to wait in long lines for their ICE “check-ins” and immigrants with compelling cases for legal status are still sitting in ICE detention.

DOJ and DHS have yet to respond to emails and phone calls from the Miami Herald.

For more than a week, the unions that represent immigration prosecutors and judges, as well as the bar that represents immigration attorneys nationwide, have asked the federal agencies to shut down its immigration courts nationwide for at least two to four weeks, in addition to all offices and facilities where non-detained immigrants are required to physically check in.

The groups have made almost half a dozen letters public on social media, demanding that the Trump administration “ensure and place the public health and safety of all… before its politically driven law enforcement policies.”

“COVID-19 does not discriminate between a DHS trial attorney, private counsel, the respondents, or court employees,” said A. Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Tuesday.

“The Immigration court does not function in a vacuum. Every hearing requires participation of a multitude of people from court employees, to the respondents, private counsel and government trial attorneys. Each of those individuals has to navigate personal and professional obligations, including commuting to and from work with many relying on public transportation, standing shoulder to shoulder in long security lines, riding in crowded elevators, and being placed in cramped waiting rooms and courtrooms bursting at the seams with people. Everyone is at risk based on their own or a loved one’s health-related condition,” Tabaddor added.

After the unions sent their first letters, the Executive Office for Immigration Review announced at around 11 p.m Sunday on Twitter that it would cancel all preliminary hearings, but said everything else will continue as usual. Also operating amid the coronavirus crisis is United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles naturalization and citizenship.

“No person should have to choose between safeguarding their health and well-being and/or failing to meet DHS’ unreasonable and unnecessary demands. ICE detainees face an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 as they are forced to live in close quarters and rendered powerless to take appropriate measures to ensure their own health,” said Jessica Schneider, director of the detention program at Americans for Immigrant Justice. “Vulnerable immigrants are sitting ducks.”

The citizenship office and the immigration review agency did not respond to emails and phone calls from the Miami Herald.

In addition to their request that courtrooms close, immigration judges, ICE prosecutors and immigration lawyers are asking that the federal government release from ICE detention centers anyone over age 60, pregnant women and anyone who has a serious health condition.

ICE was not immediately available for comment Monday.

Since the joint letters were released, DOJ announced that it will close the immigration court in Seattle and would limit the size of some hearings at 10 immigration courts in six cities for four weeks. However, the immigration prosecutors, judges, and lawyers say that is “woefully insufficient.”

“We applaud the DOJ’s decision to close down the Seattle Court as it recognizes the need to place the health and safety of the community first. However, the DOJ has provided no scientific or reasoned basis to explain why one locale deserves this type of protection, while the immigration courts in the rest of the country are being provided with either partial health and safety solutions, or worse, no health and safety precautions at all.”