NJ Immigration Attys Can't Stop In-Person Hearings For Now

By Jeannie O'Sullivan
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Law360 (September 3, 2020, 8:53 PM EDT) -- A New Jersey federal judge on Thursday expressed sympathy for attorneys' concerns about mandated in-person hearings in Newark Immigration Court during the COVID-19 pandemic, but said he needed more information from the government before ruling on their request to halt the in-person requirement.

During a telephone hearing, U.S. District Judge John Michael Vasquez declined to grant a temporary restraining order for the Garden State chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, citing a dearth of information about the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review's July decision to resume in-person proceedings.

The AILA's emergency request came as part of its lawsuit seeking to reverse the EOIR's mandate after an attorney and law clerk who attended March hearings later died of the coronavirus. Judge Vasquez said he needed to know more about the EOIR's plan for social distancing and screening before it ordered the in-person hearings.

"I'm looking for the decision-making process before these instructions were put in place," Judge Vasquez told the parties. "I want to understand what the EOIR considered, and what the Newark immigration judges considered, before they made these decisions. I'm looking for what they actually took into account."

The judge instructed the government to furnish the information within two weeks, and said the immigration attorneys would have a week after that to reply.

"In-person can be workable, but there's a lot more information that I need," Judge Vasquez said at one point.

Also during the hearing, Judge Vasquez suggested that he was going to reject the government's argument that the district court can't hear the matter due to jurisdiction-limiting provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

"It's somewhat of a shocking argument to hear the DOJ say there's nothing the attorneys can do to protect themselves if the [Board of Immigration Appeals] decides not to take action," Judge Vasquez said. "It's disheartening."

The AILA's July 31 complaint targets the EOIR's July 8 decision to resume in-person hearings for nondetained immigrants on July 13. The group said forcing immigration attorneys to show up to court is needlessly risky with the availability of videoconferencing technology, and claimed that when the EOIR restarted hearings in the Newark court, it did so without "basic information" on how to safely social distance in the building.

The AILA claimed attorneys have been "arbitrarily" denied requests to postpone scheduled hearings, and that an immigration judge has even threatened disciplinary action against two lawyers if they failed to appear for an in-person hearing. On Thursday, AILA attorney Michael R. Noveck of Gibbons PC said attorneys were "risking their lives" by showing up to court, or facing potential discipline if they didn't.

The government has countered that halting the in-person proceedings would bring the Newark Immigration Court's caseload, which currently tops 67,500, to a standstill. The EOIR has pointed to the availability in court of video-teleconferencing technology, or VTC, which allows attorneys to join proceedings from an empty courtroom.

The AILA has pushed to use Zoom or Skype in order to avoid having to go to a courtroom at all, but the government has said that those applications lack VTC's transcription capabilities and security features.

The AILA is represented by Lawrence S. Lustberg and Michael R. Noveck of Gibbons PC.

The government is represented by Ben Kuruvilla of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey.

The case is American Immigration Lawyers Association et al. v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, case number 2:20-cv-09748, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

--Additional reporting by Jennifer Doherty and Alyssa Aquino. Editing by Breda Lund.

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

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