President Donald Trump’s increasingly urgent campaign to attack the coronavirus outbreak has been notably slow to impact the immigration courts, where dramatic moves could undercut his signature policy of getting tough on undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
As state and federal courts around the country scale back sharply due to the pandemic, most immigration courts pressed on Monday and Tuesday with only minor adjustments, prompting growing outrage from immigration judges, lawyers for immigrants facing deportation and even the attorneys who serve as prosecutors.
Court observers said proceedings continued with vulnerable immigrants being called in for hearings and some being funneled into crowded holding rooms. And even as places like California moved to a near-lockdown status, the immigration courts pressed on largely as usual, triggering bitter complaints and dire warnings.
Some of the most pointed complaints came from lawyers involved in hearings stemming from Trump’s remain-in-Mexico policy instituted last year, which requires most asylum seekers who enter from Mexico to return to that country to await a chance to appear before a U.S. immigration judge.
“Update from SD #MPP court: we are the only attys here so far w 50 asylum seekers filing in to the small waiting room,” Human Rights First lawyer Robyn Barnard wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “No hand sanitizer. One paper sign telling ppl to wash hands. So many little babies here today. #COVID19 #shutitdown #parolethemin”
While most other federal courts are under the control of the Judicial branch, immigration courts are part of the Justice Department itself, with Department of Homeland Security lawyers serving essentially as prosecutors.
Several hours after this story was published Tuesday, Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review — which oversees the courts and the appeal process — said that beginning Wednesday all hearings for immigrants not in custody would be postponed indefinitely.
In a tweet sent just before midnight, EOIR also announced several closures of individual courts, including facilities in Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, New York and Sacramento. Prior to Wednesday, the only full closure due to COVID-19 was in Seattle.
It was not immediately clear precisely how the closure list was arrived at. Some handled only “non-detained” cases, so would have been empty once those cases were put off. Court personnel said Tuesday there were also reports of suspected corona virus infections at some courts.
Many involved in the immigration court process said they detected a disconnect between the aggressive measures most state and federal courts have rolled out this week and the modest steps taken by DOJ leadership earlier this week.
The president of the immigration judges’ union, Ashley Tabaddor, said Tuesday that the Trump administration’s failure to close the immigration courts showed health concerns were taking a back seat to “politically-driven law enforcement policies.”
“At every court, everyone is basically in panic mode because the appropriate measures have not been taken to protect everyone from exposure,” Tabaddor told reporters on a conference call. “The politicization of the immigration courts has progressed to infecting the basic decision-making process of the agency as to the health and safety of all involved…. An independent immigration court would’ve never succumbed to those kinds of pressures.”
The administration’s decision to press on with most hearings has forged an unusual alliance, with the lawyers who advocate for immigrants and those who press for their deportation joining together to call for a temporary halt to hearings.
“COVID-19 not discriminate between a DHS trial attorney, private counsel, the respondents or court employees. We are all in it together,” Tabbador said. “Everyone is at risk.”