US immigration courts back in business despite coronavirus

Backlog of 1.2 million cases awaits as courts in New Jersey, Maryland and Michigan reopen to non-detained immigrants.

US immigration courts
A security officer, left, speaks with a man outside a federal building in Baltimore, Maryland that houses a United States immigration court. Some immigration courts across the country have reopened after closing because of the coronavirus pandemic [Julio Cortez/AP Photo]

Three immigration courts in the United States reopened Monday as the government extended its push to fully restart the clogged system despite rising coronavirus cases in states where many of the small courtrooms are located.

In Baltimore, Maryland people with hearings to reach final decisions were allowed to enter the federal building housing the immigration court only if they wore masks. Benches in a courtroom and seats in a waiting area were blocked off with tape, and social distancing signs were placed on the floor and in the elevators.

But scheduling hearings, which can include dozens of people in a single courtroom, did not take place on Monday.

Courts in Newark and Detroit also were scheduled to reopen on Monday. The reopenings extend a haphazard but unmistakable march to business as usual that has outraged judges and lawyers who say the coronavirus pandemic poses an unacceptable risk of spreading disease.

Immigrants in a naturalisation ceremony being sworn in. Most such ceremonies have been cancelled altogether since the start of the coronavirus pandemic [File: Bloomberg]

The Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review started reopening courts over the past month to non-detained immigrants, first in Honolulu on June 15 and over the next three weeks in Boston; Buffalo, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; Las Vegas; New Orleans; Chicago; Cleveland; and Philadelphia.

Dallas courts reopened June 29, but five days later, the agency announced on Twitter that it was closing until July 17 and gave no explanation. Texas has been reporting a record number of coronavirus cases, and its governor has warned the state may have to return to a lockdown to get things under control.

San Diego, which also has seen a surge in coronavirus cases, was scheduled to reopen court on July 6 but moved it back two weeks – again without explanation.

Hearings for non-detained immigrants were suspended in March because of the public health crisis, though courts in detention centres have continued to operate on a limited basis.

The court system’s backlog of 1.2 million cases becomes more crushing as long as courts are closed. The Justice Department said Monday that any court whose reopening date has not been announced will be closed through July.

The Justice Department agency has given virtually no explanation on what public health data it is using to determine if courtrooms are safe, said Ashley Tabaddor, a Los Angeles-based immigration judge speaking in her capacity as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges union.

“We keep coming back to ‘what numbers are you using?'” she said. “They seem to be out of touch with the state numbers we are seeing.”

US immigration detention centres: Fears of COVID-19 spread (2:43)

Judges in Dallas have contacted the union, concerned their health is being put at risk. The union represents about 460 immigration judges who work more than 65 courts.

“People don’t have trust that the agency is doing the right thing,” Tabaddor said.

In conjunction with the reopening, the government is going to stop allowing the electronic filing of documents, which it had done as a precaution to prevent the spread of the virus.

Immigration courts are often housed in office buildings – not courthouses – making it particularly difficult for people to spread apart because the rooms are small, Tabaddor said, adding that there is also little ventilation, especially in older buildings. The coronavirus may linger in the air indoors, increasing the risk of infection in those spaces, according to the World Health Organization.

Source: AP