Law360 (September 2, 2020, 7:00 PM EDT) -- More than 30 former immigration judges voiced support for New Jersey lawyers' lawsuit seeking to stop in-person hearings at Newark Immigration Court during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the court needs to prioritize people's health over case completion numbers.
In a letter Tuesday supporting the New Jersey chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's suit against the Trump administration, the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges said the fact that the New Jersey immigration court is requiring judges, court staff and interpreters to appear in person at all hearings and not requiring them to wear masks is "troubling," especially in light of four coronavirus-related deaths of people who visited and worked at the courthouse building.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which operates the Newark Immigration Court, is putting case completion numbers ahead of people's health and safety, to "the detriment of all those who appear at the court," the former immigration judges said.
"EOIR's push to move forward and complete as many cases as possible demonstrates that it has abdicated its responsibility to ensure that all parties are guaranteed a semblance of due process," they said, adding that the agency's "complete disregard of the health and safety of not only litigants, but its own employees, is further testament of the agency's misguided priorities."
In April 2018, the EOIR announced starting in October of that year immigration judges would be required to complete 700 cases annually and remand less than 15% of cases to have satisfactorily met their job expectations.
The policy change came after the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University released a February 2018 report finding that there was a backlog of more than 680,000 cases in immigration courts nationwide. Later that year, TRAC reported that the immigration court backlog surpassed 1 million cases.
The agency's policy shift raised concerns among immigration advocates that immigration judges wouldn't be able to decide cases fairly and prompted six immigration advocacy groups to sue the EOIR in federal court. The groups alleged that the Trump administration was weaponizing immigration courts by denying immigrants a fair chance at obtaining asylum.
The former immigration judges and Board of Immigration Appeals judges said in their letter that the Newark Immigration Court has "no legitimate reason" for not using videoconferencing technology that is being used by other New Jersey courts in place of in-person hearings.
"We are well aware of the fact that EOIR has the technology to handle its cases via televideo," they said.
In March, the American Immigration Lawyers Association along with two other advocacy organizations filed a similar complaint in D.C. federal court seeking the immediate suspension of in-person detention hearings or the release of all detained migrants who have no means to remotely access legal representation or the immigration court.
A D.C. federal judge ruled in that case that the organizations didn't show the court had the authority to stop proceedings, allowing in-person hearings to continue.
AILA-NJ's attorney Michael Noveck of Gibbons PC told Law360 in a statement Wednesday that "there is no excuse for EOIR's failure to conduct proceedings by remote videoconferencing, where the technology to do so is fully available to EOIR."
"EOIR's failure to use this readily accessible technology risks the health and lives of attorneys (among others) who are compelled to appear in person at the Newark Immigration Court, and, as we have argued in our complaint and motion for preliminary injunction, it is therefore unlawful and cannot be justified by a rush to deport people," Noveck said.
Counsel for the federal government declined to comment Wednesday.
AILA-NJ is represented by Lawrence S. Lustberg and Michael R. Noveck of Gibbons PC.
The federal government is represented by Ben Kuruvilla of the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.
The case is American Immigration Lawyers Association et al. v. Executive Office for Immigration Review et al., case number 2:20-cv-09748, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
--Additional reporting by Alyssa Aquino and Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Stephen Berg.
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