US immigration Judges urged the Trump administration to “immediately” implement steps to protect judges and their staff and provide ways on how to proceed amidst the coronavirus outbreak, which also has the potential to aggravate the overwhelming accumulation of pending cases.
The Judges call for Immigration Review, an office within the Justice Department that oversees and supervises the nation’s immigration courts, to inform staff about the plan “as it relates to a potential coronavirus pandemic,” emphasizing that some immigration court functions “may not lend themselves to telework.”
“As you are aware, our work requires us to be in close contact with people on a daily basis, often in very large groups,” said Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
She stated: “Beyond our own staff, the respondents who appear before us may also be at high risk for developing a serious illness. Because we demand their appearance and they face the likelihood of removal if they don’t appear, sick respondents and respondents in danger to serious illness will keep appearing at the court unless we take action.”
On the other hand, the union also suggested in an email to the workforce that judges keep hand sanitizer bottles and disinfecting wipes in the courtroom to cleans hand and surfaces, and limit court attendance. The email also included flyers on COVID-19 about how to identify symptoms and prevent the spread of germs.
As concerns over the coronavirus increases, some government departments, agencies, businesses, and organizations have taken steps to try and prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease by preparing for employees to freelance, limiting travel and cancelling gatherings.
In a letter posted by the union, judges are asking Trump administration to consider measures such as removing the appearance of some respondents, allowing for telephonic appearances and reducing in-court paper filings.
“The department is closely following the guidance of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of Personnel Management, and other relevant agencies,” a Justice Department spokesman said in a media release.
“The department also advised its staff that although the overall risk to people in the United States remains low, the department recommends following CDC guidance on preventive actions targeted at limiting exposure to, and the spread of, respiratory viruses.”
Any change in the day to day operations is critical in the immigration court, which faces an accumulation of pending cases.
Generally, immigrants fighting deportation have an opportunity to make their case in court, where they can ask a judge to let them stay in the United States by arguing they qualify for asylum or any other legal option.
Last year’s US government shutdown, which led to some cases being postponed, aggravated the long-standing issue and worsen the backlog. Now, there are more than one (1) million pending cases before the courts, according to TRAC, which tracks immigration court data — leading to cases being scheduled out years in advance.
TRAC estimated that between 80,000 and 94,000 immigration court cases may have been cancelled as a result of last year’s government shutdown. The only cases that seem to have advanced during that time were those of immigrants in detention.
The concerns held among immigration lawyers Monday are a reminder of the US government shutdown.
Immigration lawyers are bothered about the effect on the backlog of cases if attorneys, judges and other stakeholders are out because of COVID-19.
“If coronavirus disease gets out of control, it’s always a problem when cases are cancelled, given the backlog,” Lawrence K. Le Roy, an attorneys based in Newark, stated in reference to coronavirus.
John Leschak, an immigration lawyer, had a case scheduled Monday at the Newark immigration court for a client seeking for asylum in the US. The judge wasn’t in court and the hearing was rescheduled. It’s not clear whether the reason behind the judge’s absence from the court was related to coronavirus.
The coronavirus outbreak is also already impacting the operations of some federal courts across the United States.
For instance, a district court in the State of Washington and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from nine western states including Washington, cancelled some of the procedures as the virus continues to spread. Washington has seen at least eighty (80) cases.
Unlike other conventional courts, however, immigration courts fall under the executive branch of government, not the judicial branch.