While courts are largely closed as the coronavirus tears through the United States, most of the nation’s 68 immigration courts have remained open at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Trump administration has resisted calls from immigration judges and attorneys to stop in-person hearings and shutter all immigration courts. While the Justice Department has moved to delay hearings for immigrants who are not in detention centers, it is still moving ahead with hearings for immigrants who are detained.
Immigration attorney Himedes Chicas, of Jezic & Moyse LLC in Wheaton, lamented the Justice Department’s failure to provide uniform guidance on hearings for detainees, saying the government has been “very slow to react” to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Chicas, immigration court in Maryland continued hearing cases for detained and non-detained immigrants until March 16, with courtrooms and hallways on the upper floor of Baltimore’s George H. Fallon Federal Building packed with people.
“I remember thinking, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’” Chicas said. “The spaces are small and the docket sizes are huge at this point.”
Now, immigration courtrooms have been largely closed to the public, with a limit of 10 people in a room at a time, according to Maryland immigration attorneys.
Attorneys say the Justice Department’s failure to respond promptly to the pandemic has led to confusion over what hearings are happening and what procedures are in place.
With her client stuck in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Worcester County that is under quarantine after an inmate tested positive for COVID-19, Washington immigration attorney Julia Toro faced a tough decision last week in immigration court: continue her client’s scheduled bond hearing without the client present or postpone the hearing.
Toro said the quandary was unusual, as inmates can normally take part in bond hearings via teleconference if they can’t be in court.
“I assumed (teleconferencing) would be used,” said Toro, of Julia M. Toro Law Firm. “When I got to court, the judge, her legal assistant and supervisor weren’t sure how to go forward.”
Toro ultimately agreed to waive her client’s appearance. After she argued that the man had been arrested while police were looking for someone else, the judge approved a “surprisingly low” bond amount, Toro said.
However, when the man’s wife went to the federal building to post bail for her husband, guards denied her entry, Toro said.
“The chaos was figuring out where to send her with her check to bond out her husband,” Toro said.
Late the next day, Toro learned that Baltimore’s ICE office was closed. She said ICE is now preparing to accept bond payments on Mondays and Fridays. However, Toro isn’t sure her client will be released from the Worcester County detention center because of the coronavirus lockdown.
Toro said that while not all immigration attorneys agree, she believes detained docket hearings should continue, especially given the health risks faced by immigrants in detention.
“They’re in a petri dish and (the detention centers) don’t have the medical staff to support an outbreak in jail,” Toro said. “I think (hearings) should go forward.”
For his part, Chicas said it makes sense to postpone hearings when clients are not able to appear in court because their detention centers are on lockdown, which prevents their attorneys from meeting with them.
Immigration judges also have been critical of the Justice Department’s handling of immigration courts during the coronavirus pandemic.
“What’s extremely troubling to our organization is that the Executive Office of Immigration Review has done a terrible job of helping the attorneys and the people they represent know what to expect in the courts and how to handle things,” said Dana Marks, a San Francisco immigration judge who spoke Thursday on behalf of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Marks, who serves as president emerita of the organization, said the Justice Department has engaged in “poor communication” during the crisis, noting that judges have often learned of changes and court closures through government Twitter accounts.
“Many closures have been announced over Twitter after business hours and we don’t hear about it before that, which is very demoralizing, to say the least,” Marks said.
The NAIJ, along with the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a union representing ICE prosecutors, recently issued a joint request to the Justice Department to close immigration courts for several weeks.
“We don’t feel there’s enough information to know medically what can or should be done right now,” Marks said.