GAO Probes Immigration Courts' COVID-19 Response

By Christopher Cole
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Law360 (September 15, 2020, 4:10 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Government Accountability Office has launched an investigation into Democratic allegations that the Trump administration mishandled how federal immigration courts are dealing with COVID-19, a trio of senators said.

The GAO will look into practices of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, which critics have accused of skewing the playing field against immigrants under both of Trump's attorneys general.

Democrats, including Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, said they are concerned about larger politicization of the agency that runs the judicial review of immigration cases, but it was not clear Tuesday what would fall within the scope of the GAO's investigation.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Durbin jointly announced the probe in a statement Monday.

"We've heard alarming accounts of the [EOIR] making procedural changes to tip the scales of justice against immigrants. COVID-19 rages in this country, and yet the department plows ahead with a process that forces people into in-person proceedings without sufficient safeguards and keeps them in unsafe detention facilities with limited access to counsel," the senators said.

"A thorough GAO investigation will help to shed light on the troubling politicization and mismanagement of our immigration system," they added.

All three Democrats serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Durbin as ranking member on the immigration subcommittee and Hirono also on that panel. Whitehouse has been a vocal opponent of what he views as undue political influence on both the Justice Department, in such areas as antitrust enforcement, and Trump's selection process for judicial nominees.

The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Democrats contend that politicization of the immigration review process stretches back to the tenure of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and continues today with his successor, William Barr. In congressional testimony, Barr has vociferously defended his stewardship of the DOJ as apolitical.

Durbin, Hirono and Whitehouse said they first voiced concerns to Barr about the EOIR in February but that he did not respond. In August, they asked the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, to put the issue under a microscope.

Democrats cited reports that immigrants "face a range of unsafe conditions and practices" due to management decisions, including "the detention of children using unaccountable private contractors, and health and safety risks to immigrants, judges, and other court personnel."

More than 5,600 cases of COVID-19 had been reported inside ICE facilities as of Sept. 10, and six people have died, according to figures they cited.

Several other Democratic lawmakers joined the request for a GAO investigation, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Chris Coons of Delaware, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, nor did the GOP side of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak and Khorri Atkinson. Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

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