DOJ Allows Digital Signatures On Immigration Court Filings

By Suzanne Monyak
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Law360 (April 6, 2020, 4:15 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Department of Justice has relaxed its signature requirements in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic by allowing attorneys to file documents in immigration courts with digital or scanned signatures.

The DOJ’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees the U.S. immigration court system, said in guidance published Friday that beginning March 31, the agency will accept filings with digital or electronically reproduced signatures, rather than requiring immigration court filings to have "wet ink," or original signatures.

The policy will apply to filings submitted electronically, by mail or in person. Attorneys are also free to continue to submit documents with original ink signatures if they wish.

The policy is one of a number of recent measures issued by federal agencies easing filing rules in an effort to cut back on in-person interactions, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to limit their contact with others to mitigate the spread of the virus.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, for example, has also waived its wet ink signature requirement and allowed electronically reproduced, or scanned or photocopied, signatures, though the agency has not permitted digital signatures.

The Internal Revenue Service has also agreed to accept digital and scanned signatures on certain tax documents in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The EOIR has come under pressure by immigration defense attorneys, immigration judges and U.S. Department of Homeland Security trial attorneys alike to close the immigration courts and postpone filing deadlines during the pandemic, particularly as judges and attorneys who have recently appeared in court are diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The Justice Department office has instead opted for a piecemeal approach, closing individual immigration courthouses for shorter periods after a reported coronavirus case. The agency has ceased hearings for people who aren't in detention, but detained hearings are continuing and filings are still due, which often requires the court's clerical staff to be physically present to accept documents.

As of Monday, just four immigration courts were fully closed.

The EOIR also posted guidance last month ordering immigration courts to refuse entry to individuals who have recently traveled to a country with large numbers of COVID-19 cases.

--Additional reporting by Alyssa Aquino. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

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

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