10 Immigration Courts Close, Hearings Delayed For COVID-19

By Suzanne Monyak
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Law360 (March 18, 2020, 12:14 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Department of Justice postponed all immigration court hearings for immigrants who aren't in detention and closed 10 courthouses, the department said overnight Tuesday, following backlash from attorneys and judges that continuing hearings would threaten public health amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to the Seattle immigration court, which closed last week, immigration courts in Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Houston; Memphis, Tennessee; Sacramento, California; Newark, New Jersey; and two in New York City are closed through April 10. An immigration court in Los Angeles is also closed, the DOJ said Tuesday night, while the immigration court in Louisville, Kentucky, has been closed since August for reasons unrelated to the virus.

Those 11 closed immigration courts are only a fraction of the 69 total immigration courts across 31 states and territories.

The DOJ's Executive Office for Immigration Review had initially only agreed to postpone certain preliminary scheduling hearings, but in its midnight announcement said that all non-detained hearings would be delayed through April 10 as well.

"Due to EOIR's continuing evaluation of information from local, regional, state, and federal officials regarding the coronavirus pandemic, the agency is postponing non-detained hearings nationwide," an EOIR spokesperson said in a statement just after midnight.

The office has provided alternate courts to which attorneys can file emergency immigration paperwork in the meantime. Those in New York City, Los Angeles and Houston will file with other immigration courts in those cities that remain open, while those in Memphis and Louisville will file with the New Orleans immigration court.

Immigrants in Atlanta and Charlotte will file to Atlanta's other immigration court, which handles detained cases. Newark filers will submit to Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Sacramento filers will file in the San Francisco court. And Seattle filers have already been told to file in the Tacoma, Washington, immigration court.

Filing deadlines for the courts that are still open remain in place, but all other non-emergency filings for closed courts will be considered on time if filed once the court reopens, EOIR said Wednesday. 

EOIR's announcement follows repeated calls from the immigration judges' union, the union representing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement trial attorneys and the American Immigration Lawyers Association to close the immigration courts in response to the pandemic.

Federal and state courts across the U.S. have closed their doors and limited access in light of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations to avoid public gatherings.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Tuesday night that it was canceling all in-person appointments and events, including asylum interviews and naturalization ceremonies, and U.S. consulates across the world are scaling back visa services for foreigners.

But the immigration courts have so far stayed open, forcing immigrants to choose between risking their health and getting ordered deported in absentia, advocates say. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the immigration judges' union, described panic at immigration courts across the U.S. on a Tuesday call.

"At every court, everyone is in basically panic mode because the appropriate measures have not been taken to protect people from exposure," Tabaddor told reporters.

According to Fanny Behar-Ostrow, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 511, a private attorney who appeared before the Atlanta immigration court on West Peachtree Street — the one that is now closing — has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and a Denver immigration judge is currently self-quarantined with possible symptoms after coughing through a hearing on Friday.

Tabaddor told Law360 on Wednesday morning that the court closures and hearing postponements are a move "in the right direciton" but maintained that all immigration courts should be closed.

"It's as if they're trying to pull the Band-Aid off, like, one centimeter at a time. It's an excruciating, painful process, instead of just doing the right thing and just yank it off," she said. "Why is it like pulling teeth? Why is this so difficult to have to do the right thing?"

--Editing by Daniel King.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that all deadlines for closed courts will be waived.

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

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