Coronavirus 'Exposure' Shuts Seattle Immigration Court

By Dorothy Atkins
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Law360 (March 11, 2020, 9:19 PM EDT) -- The Seattle immigration court was closed Wednesday because of a reported "second-hand exposure to coronavirus," while a top immigration official defended the government's response to the outbreak during a heated hearing before lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The developments came on the same day the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, driving financial markets to drop and ending the U.S. stock market's decade-long bull run.

Top federal immigration official Ken Cuccinelli and Dr. Stephen C. Redd of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were in the hot seat Wednesday to answer from the House Homeland Security Committee on the federal government's response to the virus.

Many of the Democratic members took issue with the number of coronavirus tests available to the public and the long waits for individuals calling the CDC's coronavirus hotline. Some Republican committee members used the occasion to bolster the party's arguments that border patrols should be increased to keep immigrants out of the country.

Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Redd, director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, both stressed the role state governments must play in responding to the outbreak and argued that the CDC's role is limited. But the comments prompted Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., to point out that the CDC recently received an $8.3 billion aid package that the House of Representatives signed off on to fight the virus.

Thompson called the package a "heck of a lot of money" and emphasized that the states can't fight the outbreak alone.

"No state on its own can survive the situation that we are dealing with right now without relying on the CDC," he said.

In response to questions from Democrats, Redd said there are 75,000 available test kits from public health agencies and about 1 million available in the commercial market. However, Redd couldn't explain what process members of the public would have to go through to access those tests and said it depends on the companies with the tests.

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., pressed the officials on whether large gatherings of thousands of people, like the campaign rally President Donald Trump is planning for March 19, should be called off in light of the virus. Redd agreed that gatherings of more than 1,000 individuals should be postponed, while Cuccinelli refused to concede the point.

Cuccinelli said immigration officials have turned away 400 Chinese nationals who have attempted to enter the country, and even more Canadians, due to their potential exposure to the coronavirus, although he acknowledged that the government never tested those individuals.

Cuccinelli also stressed the importance of funding the border patrol in light of the pandemic.

"We are not yet having a coronavirus problem at the southern border," Cuccinelli said. "But we are planning as we see numbers rise [outside the country]."

But Thompson questioned whether Cuccinelli even had the authority to testify before the committee in light of a D.C. federal court's finding earlier this month that he was illegally appointed as acting director of USCIS.

Cuccinelli replied that he consulted with the agency's counsel, and he believes he is not violating the court's order, adding that "it's pretty simple and straightforward."

In an opening statement, Redd said that Feb. 25 was an "inflection point," where the number of coronavirus cases outside China surpassed the number of cases within China's borders. He also noted that the virus spreads "rapidly and easily" and has grown from 30 cases in China to more than 100,000 cases worldwide in less than two months.

As of Wednesday morning, the CDC has tracked more than 900 cases in 38 states and Washington, D.C., including 31 deaths, according to Redd.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office of Immigration Review announced the  closing of the Seattle immigration court in a tweet Tuesday. The tweet did not indicate how long the court would be shuttered.

On Wednesday, the account published another tweet saying court filings that are due at the court will be considered if the documents are received "on the court's next business day." The EOIR added in the tweet that during the Seattle closure, emergency matters may be filed with the Tacoma immigration court.

A representative for the immigration court did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted some federal courts to restrict access to courthouses, and the chief judge of the Ninth Circuit said the appeals court plans to make adjustments to allow attorneys to argue their hearings remotely in light of the illness.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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