The National Association of Immigration Judges, representing the nation’s 440 judges who hear cases in U.S. Immigration Courts, said today that a survey of 69 immigration courts across the U.S. finds that just a few courtrooms are closed, while over 60 remain open for full or limited operations.
“Meeting in person, under crowded conditions, is completely unacceptable,” said the Hon. Ashley Tabaddor, a U.S. immigration judge in Los Angeles and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
“The federal government should be modeling best practices for containing the spread of this virus. The open Immigration Courts are an example of what not to do. Judges, attorneys, prosecutors and litigants are being forced to gather in courtrooms and buildings where there are confirmed cases of coronavirus and where people are visibly sick,” said Tabaddor. “We’re interacting with guards and detainees who are traveling back and forth from detention facilities – some run by private companies – where COVID-19 has been detected and confirmed.”
“The U.S. Department of Justice is risking the lives of litigants and court personnel and imperiling the public by facilitating the spread of a deadly disease. It’s time to close the courts and move to a full telework model for the emergency cases – now,” she added.
NAIJ members report numerous instances of exposure to COVID-10, including:
● At Varick Immigration Court, in New York City, an immigration judge has tested positive and has pneumonia, as has a staff person, and one attorney has tested positive, while two attorneys have severe symptoms.
● In Fishkill and Ulster, New York, there are nine confirmed COVID-19 cases among correction officers who transport detainees back and forth to court.
● Recently, an immigration attorney tested positive a day after appearing in a crowded Atlanta immigration courtroom.
● In Oakdale, Louisiana, the U.S. immigration court is still hearing cases from a nearby detention facility where five prisoners have died; an attorney and staff member have tested positive for COVID-19.
● In cities with coronavirus hotspots such as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, courts remain open.
NAIJ members also report a widespread breakdown of conference call systems and software that are supposed to facilitate hearings by telephone. Calls are being dropped, and interpreters cannot hear witnesses, making it impossible to create an accurate record of important legal proceedings.
“Keeping courts open at this time is reckless and dangerous,” said Judge Tabaddor. “Not having functioning, modern technology so we can conduct remote hearings is simply embarrassing. Public and private organizations all over the world are adapting rapidly to remote work. What’s wrong at the U.S. Department of Justice?”
On March 15, immigration judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys issued an unprecedented joint appeal for “emergency closure of the nation’s Immigration Courts in adherence with current public health protocols.” Three weeks later, as coronavirus surges, the courts are still open.
“Judges and attorneys confront all kinds of disputes inside our courtrooms,” said Tabaddor. “When it comes to public health, we are all on the same side.”