U.S. called on to close immigration courts, release some detainees

“COVID-19 does not discriminate between a DHS trial attorney, private counsel, the respondents or court employees,” one union representative said.
Image: Immigrant Community Leaders Demand ICE Cancel Check-in Appointments Over Coronavirus Threat
Protesters outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office last week in Miramar, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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By Daniella Silva

A wide coalition of immigrant advocacy and union groups are demanding the Trump administration close all immigration courts and release vulnerable migrants from detention as enforcement operations have persisted despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Immigration judges, attorneys and Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers called on the Department of Justice to close the courts as they pointed out the dangers of holding people in public spaces.

Some immigration courts have remained open for hearings amid the crisis, despite local governments closing some other courts and the Supreme Court postponing oral arguments and closing to the public.

"The scientific, evidence-based opinion of public health experts can only lead to one conclusion for us all who are connected with the immigration court system, and that is to immediately and temporarily close all of the immigration courts nationwide," Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge in Los Angeles and the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges union, said on a news teleconference Tuesday.

"COVID-19 does not discriminate between a DHS trial attorney, private counsel, the respondents or court employees," she said. "We are all in it together."

Tabaddor said everyone in the court system needs to commute to work, often 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 seam with people."

Tabaddor also slammed the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration over communication issues, saying announcements were usually being made late night and on Twitter.

"Our primary concern here today is with the Department of Justice's refusal to either close or postpone immigration court in-person hearings during this global health crisis," said Fanny Behar-Ostrow, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 511, a union that represents ICE attorneys.

"We oppose an edict that forces respondents to choose between attending court on the one hand or protecting themselves against exposure of the coronavirus on the other," she said.

If an immigrant with an ongoing case does not show up to court, a judge could order them deported in absentia.

The groups said there is a judge in Denver who is home with coronavirus symptoms and an attorney in Atlanta who self-reported testing positive for the disease.

The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review said late Tuesday night that as of Wednesday, all hearings for those not in detention would be postponed and some courts would close. Those courts include some in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey and California, the office said, but others remain open.

The office did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The immigration judge's union said that while the partial closings were a "big step forward," it criticized the office for providing "absolutely no rationale" and issuing the directive in a "stealth midnight move."

The union also called for hearings for detained migrants and those in the "Remain in Mexico" program to also be postponed immediately. That's the program under which asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings.

"Every day of delay will cost lives," the group said on Twitter.

Late Sunday, the department said all initial hearings in immigration cases for nondetained immigrants scheduled from Monday to April 10 would be postponed. All other hearings would proceed, they said, but the Seattle Immigration Court would remain closed through April 10.

As the calls to close the courts continue, a flurry of immigrant rights groups called on the government to release migrants who would be most vulnerable to coronavirus.

The agency did not address concerns about releasing some migrants, but directed such requests for comment to its coronavirus response page.

The agency said on its website that while it remains committed to the health and safety of its employees and the public, "it is important for the public to know that ICE does not conduct operations at medical facilities, except under extraordinary circumstances."

"As a precautionary measure, ICE has temporarily suspended social visitation in all detention facilities," it said. "In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus."

In a statement released Wednesday, ICE said it is temporarily adjusting enforcement to "promote life-saving and public safety activities," including focusing enforcement on people subject to mandatory detention because of criminal histories. Criminal investigations surrounding child exploitation, gang activity and drug trafficking will continue.

On Wednesday, the group Raices (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) shared depositions from migrant clients detained at the facility in Karnes County, Texas, expressing fears of exposure and confusion.

"Here at this detention center, we do not have access to hand sanitizer or masks, or anything else that could protect as we are all stuck together in close quarters," a migrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo said in a deposition.

"The officials here have not said anything to us about what is happening outside, or any extra precautions that we should take," the migrant said. "We are scared because nobody will tell us anything, and we fear that nobody will take care of us."

"We do not get good health care here in Karnes. With all of these people in one place, we all get sick at the same time," said a migrant from Haiti. "This thing is very sensitive, and sickness spreads fast in Karnes. We will all die in here. If it comes here, we are doomed. Lack of medical care will kill us."

Erika Andiola, chief of advocacy for Raices, said the group was calling on ICE to release migrants from detention facilities, citing a lack of proper medical care and previous outbreaks at facilities.

"One the biggest concerns we have is there is no sign that these folks are going to get the medical attention that they need given there have been outbreaks in the past," she said.

In Seattle on Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement on behalf of immigrants they say are "especially vulnerable" to coronavirus at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center.

The group called on ICE to release migrant detainees who were "at high risk of serious illness or death" if they were to become sick with the coronavirus.

"Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission," Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project, said in a statement.

"In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people," she said. "These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear."

"Public health experts have warned that failing to reduce the number of people detained — and in particular, failing to release those particularly vulnerable to the disease — endangers the lives of everyone in the detention facility, including staff, and the broader community," Cho said.