DOJ Halts Some Immigration Hearings, But Courts Still Open

By Alyssa Aquino
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Law360 (March 16, 2020, 9:06 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Department of Justice has suspended preliminary hearings for immigrants who aren't currently detained but said other immigration hearings will still go on as scheduled amid a national emergency over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The DOJ's Executive Office for Immigration Review tweeted late Sunday night that master calendar hearings for non-detained immigrants scheduled between March 16 and April 10 are indefinitely on hold, an expansion of a recent decision to shut down the Seattle immigration court and postpone preliminary hearings for non-detained immigrants in six cities.

Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Law360 Monday that her organization welcomes the move but that it doesn't go far enough.

"It doesn't mean that immigration courts are closed — they still have the same lawyers and the same EOIR staff that are involved in those hearings; they still do the bond hearings and are still participating in individual merits hearings. And it doesn't apply to those individuals who are detained," she said.

"The EOIR needs to suspend all immigration court proceedings to protect the health of litigations, employees, support staff and the community at large," Lynch said.

On Sunday, AILA issued a joint letter with the National Association of Immigration Judges and the American Federation of Government Employees, among others, calling on the government to close immigration courts nationwide to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

Individuals attending hearings who don't show COVID-19 symptoms may still be carrying the coronavirus and can unwittingly infect others, and because testing for the virus is scarce, it is impossible to know which cities are COVID-19 hotbeds requiring special attention, the groups said.

"The DOJ has provided no scientific or reasoned basis to explain why one locale deserves this type of protection, while the immigration courts in the rest of the country are being provided with either partial health and safety solutions, or worse, no health and safety precautions at all," they said.

The Seattle immigration court was first closed March 11 after a reported secondhand exposure to the virus and will now remain closed until April 10.

Lynch also expressed frustration to Law360 at the DOJ's opaque decision-making process and lack of guidance concerning immigration courts amid the global coronavirus outbreak.

On Thursday, AILA and over 100 other legal services providers issued a letter voicing their concern over the "lack of guidance or proactive measures taken by EOIR" to guarantee the health of people in New York's immigration courts.

Kathryn Mattingly, a spokesperson for the EOIR, said in an emailed statement Monday, "EOIR continues to evaluate the information available from public health officials to inform the decisions regarding the operational status of each immigration court."

Federal courts across the country have closed down and scaled back to curb the virus.

The DOJ did not immediately respond to Monday questions.

--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Brian Baresch.

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