In March, the nation went into lockdown, and the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) postponed all non-detained hearings. However, certain immigration hearings proceeded in-person without a teleconferencing alternative, despite other courts nationwide turning to doing hearings by video or phone conference. This put countless immigrants and children at risk.
Now, EOIR is reopening courts for all cases without any preparation or plan to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 to immigrants, court officials, and advocates. Courts have reopened in Boston, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, and of course, Newark. The widespread reopening of courts means countless more people will be at risk of coronavirus exposure if nothing changes.
As a result, immigration lawyers from the New Jersey chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) sued the EOIR to halt in-person hearings until the court provides adequate safety protocols. The stakes could not be clearer: the suit cites the death of an immigration lawyer and an ICE clerk that were traced to courtroom exposure prior to the courts shutting down.
The National Association of Immigration Judges discussed the court reopening, stating that the EOIR doesn’t determine which courts will open back up. Instead, that decision comes from the U.S. Attorney for the district, who is appointed by the Department of Justice.
No Criteria & No Plan from the EOIR
The EOIR has not made clear what their criteria is for reopening courts. Their safety guidelines are adopted from general public safety guidelines, which includes a request to “not appear in court” if they’ve tested positive. But many immigrants don’t have the option of simply not appearing in court, and the public safety guidelines are not adequate for addressing the demands of court procedure.
For instance, the EOIR has not made a plan for translation services, which is key to affirming immigrant rights in court. Under normal conditions, translators sit right next to the person they’re speaking for, but this is impossible with social distancing. Low-quality telephonic interpretation could also hurt a person’s case.
Additionally, immigration cases are often processed through master calendar meetings, where dozens of defendants will hear charges while sitting in the same room. Cases have been postponed or pushed up with little notice, making it even harder to unrepresented individuals to understand what’s happening.
These chaotic conditions and others make it clear that EOIR needs to create a safe, coherent plan for reopening the courts. They simply cannot declare a court reopened and push through immigration cases without protecting the health and safety of immigrants, advocates, translators, court officials, and all their families.
If you have questions about your immigration case in light of the AILA lawsuit, speak with our New Jersey immigration attorney today: (800) 909-8129.