Calls grow to close US immigration courts over coronavirus

In rare joint call, federal immigration employees, judges and lawyers urge US to close courts.

    Authorities have suspended court hearing non-detained people, but groups want the courts completely closed [File: Cedar Attanasio/The Associated Press]
    Authorities have suspended court hearing non-detained people, but groups want the courts completely closed [File: Cedar Attanasio/The Associated Press]

    The union representing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees (ICE), as well as national associations for both immigration judges and lawyers have called for all immigration courts in the United States to be temporarily closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

    In a rare joint statement on Sunday, the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 511, which represents ICE employees, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) said: "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."

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    The groups added that the "DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our Immigration Courts." 

    The organisations added that "no doubt, closing the courts is a difficult decision that will impose significant hardship" for those currently in ICE detention and migrants currently waiting in Mexico for their asylum claim to be processed, as part of the administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy which was upheld by the Supreme Court last week. As part of that programme, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), asylum seekers are sent to Mexico to wait out their asylum cases in US courts. 

    To date, the coronavirus has infected more than 164,000 people worldwide, with the disease it causes, COVID-19, killing more than 6,400. In the United States, nearly 4,000 people have been infected with the novel coronavirus, with 69 deaths according to Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the virus worldwide. 

    ICE holds nearly 38,000 immigrants in more than 130 facilities across the country, including local jails and prisons. Unlike other detention centres, ICE officials have wide discretion over who can be released while their cases make their way through the courts.

    US immigration courts are currently grappling with a backlog of one million cases.

    The call from immigration lawyers and federal immigration employees came days after the DOJ closed the Seattle Immigration court in Washington State, where the vast majority of deaths in the US have occured, until April 10.

    On Monday, the Department of Justice's Executive Office of Immigration announced that nationally, all hearings for non-detained individuals would be postponed, while "all other hearings" would proceed. 

    Not far enough

    Some advocates and analysts said the call for closing the courts does not go far enough to protect asylum seekers waiting in camps along the US borders.

    Health workers in those camps have warned of devastation if the virus spreads there, which many see as inevitable

    "The thing about closing immigration courts for MPP hearings is that it won't make anything better," tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, a group that advocates for immigrant rights, on Monday. "People will still be stuck in squalid refugee camps where their health risks will be even higher."

    "The only answer is to end MPP immediately so people can join the family in the US," he said. 

    Meanwhile, Bill Holston, the executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, has called for all ICE detainees over the age of 50 to be released. 

    "At this moment, we are exposing vulnerable immigrants to increased risk," Holston told the Dallas Morning News. "At a time where we are closing schools and even museums, we are placing people in great risk of an epidemic, and with a track record where we have not taken great care of the detained immigrants."

    The New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group based in New York, in a tweet on Monday said the decision federal authorities are making in keeping courts open are "in line with every other vile decision the Trump administration has made to harm immigrants, migrants, and refugees".

    Slow rate of testing

    Trump has been accused of downplaying the threat of the virus. His administration has been criticised for a slow rate of testing for the virus, making it difficult to determine where current hotspots are in the country.

    The ICE union and the immigration judges and lawyers associations, in their joint statement, said they had consulted Dr Ashish Jha, the KT Li Professor of Global Health at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, who advised that the nearly 70 immigration courts in the country be closed. 

    "In the face of inadequate national testing, Dr Jha said it is irresponsible to do anything other than close our courts until sufficient testing has been conducted," the statement said.

    "He estimates that in two to four weeks sufficient testing will have been completed so that epidemiological experts will be able to provide specific, data-based directions for organizations like our courts," the groups said. "He provided his unequivocal opinion that to continue to hold any hearings at any Immigration Court at this time presents a high public health risk."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News