Court Battles

Judge rejects request to suspend immigration court hearings amid coronavirus outbreak

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday rejected a request to suspend immigration court proceedings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols, a Trump appointee, said steps have been taken to mitigate public health concerns around continued immigration hearings, and that the federal judiciary was “not well positioned to second-guess those health and safety determinations.”

“The government has already changed its policies to attempt to minimize any harm to Plaintiffs and others in the immigration system and is making daily and case-by-case determinations about health and safety issues,” Nichols wrote in a 27-page opinion.  

The lawsuit, brought last month by three immigration advocacy groups and several detained clients, urged the U.S. District Court in D.C. to suspend in-person hearings for the duration of the public health crisis.

It comes as a variety of groups in the immigration legal space — including advocates, attorneys, judges and security personnel — have denounced the danger of continuing to hold immigrant detention and court proceedings.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the Department of Justice agency that runs immigration courts, argued that its panels are practicing safety measures on par with other courts in the country.

And the immigration court caseload has been somewhat reduced, as EOIR has suspended non-detained immigration hearings and hearings for migrants under Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico.”

EOIR has also moved to prioritize telephonic and video conferencing, and has closed some immigration courts.

But National Association of Immigration Judges President Ashley Tabbador told Government Executive last week that the closures have been “reactive,” meaning they’ve come after coronavirus exposure.

“They put everyone at risk, and then when there’s an incident reported, they shut down the court for a day and then force people to come back to work,” Tabbador told the trade publication.

Still, Nichols dismissed the claims made by five detained foreign nationals and three organizations that litigate immigration cases: the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), and the Immigration Justice Campaign.

Nichols wrote that shutting down all immigration courts would amount to a “one-size-fits-all approach on all (or most) of the nation’s immigration courts and their specific cases, as well as on all (or most) of the nation’s immigration detention facilities and their unique circumstances.”

“Where, as here, the government has taken steps to craft policies to address the public health issues associated with COVID-19 while continuing to enforce the immigration laws, and where the Court is not certainly not well-positioned to second-guess those health and safety determinations, the public interest does not point in favor of granting injunctive relief,” he added.

Updated at 11:14 a.m.

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