Immigration Courts Barring Anyone Exposed To Coronavirus

By Alyssa Aquino
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Law360 (March 19, 2020, 4:39 PM EDT) -- The Department of Justice late Wednesday ordered federal immigration courts to refuse entry to individuals who have recently traveled to a country with large numbers of COVID-19 cases, while its refusal to suspend in-person detention hearings sparked backlash.

The DOJ's Executive Office of Immigration Review said there will be no entry to the courts for people who have traveled to countries designated a high public health risk by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, anyone who has been asked to self-quarantine or those who have come in contact with or been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The office took the step "to promote the safety of immigration court personnel, representatives, aliens, attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security, and the general public during the ongoing national emergency," according to a policy memorandum posted on its website.

But immigration advocates decried the policy, saying the agency is still requiring migrants in detention to show up for in-person hearings. 

"Good step, yes. Enough? No. This memo seems to signal that the administration will not cancel detained hearings," the American Immigration Lawyers Association said on Twitter

Late Tuesday, the EOIR postponed all in-person hearings for non-detained persons, making the guidance only applicable for in-person detention hearings.

Jeremy McKinney, vice president of the AILA, told Law360 the policy is a step forward, but the DOJ is still refusing to suspend in-person detention hearings. 

"What EOIR has chosen to do is ignore the science and instead keep [detained persons'] hearings going at the peril of the detainee, the staff and of course the litigants. It's ridiculous," he said.

The office has done everything else to get the courts closed, McKinney said, "except for this final step, which is in-person hearings for the detained." 

On Sunday, AILA, the National Association of Immigration Judges and the American Federation of Government Employees Local 511, which represents hundreds of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel, called on the DOJ to close its immigration courts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Federal courts across the country have closed down to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In the memo, EOIR further encouraged immigration courts to resolve cases through briefs when possible and to cut down on in-person hearings, saying hearings should be conducted through video teleconferencing to the "maximum extent practicable."  

But a number of the recommendations cutting down in-person hearings are only applicable to detained migrants with counsel, according to the policy. AILA says only 14% of detainees have legal representation. 

"While our efforts to ramp up representation have had an impact, the administration's memo puts the most vulnerable at the greatest risk of harm, along with attorneys, court staff, judges, etc.," AILA tweeted immediately after EOIR made the announcement.  

EOIR and AFGE Local 511 did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

--Editing by Amy Rowe.

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