COVID-19 & The Danger of Going to Immigration Court

by Stephen Manning — Posted in blog on March 30, 2020

The Trump Administration has, in stark terms, weaponized COVID-19 against the lives of immigrants and the communities in which they live and work. The Trump Administration has turned the immigration court system into a public health hazard.

Experts estimate that, after the pandemic runs its course, between 160 and 214 million people in the United States may become infected. The virus could take the lives of somewhere between 200,000 and 2.2 million people—again, in the United States alone. There is no vaccine. There is no immunity. Yet, the Deportation Machine churns on with a “business as usual” deportations at all cost approach at the Immigration Courts.

Using data from the New York Times COVID-19 database, we’ve mapped the nation’s immigration courts with the spreading pandemic. The image above shows the folly and danger of the operating the immigration courts with a business as usual attitude.

On March 27, 2020, a coalition of immigrant rights organizations, including Innovation Law Lab, filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order asking the court to protect the public health and stop the vectorizing of the immigration courts. The motion was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in this case. While the case challenges the overall weaponization of the court system, the motion seeks particular relief of preventing the immigration courts from becoming a public health hazard. In the motion, the organizations ask the District Court to halt all forced in-person appearances, allow parties the option of consenting to proceed, vacating all deadlines, waivers of the hard-copy and original signature requirements, and other relief.

Since the motion was filed, several leading former federal immigration judges filed an amicus brief that shows how the immigration courts ought to have responded. Drawing on continuity planning that EOIR never did, the former federal immigration judges describe how to craft a “systematic” approach to the pandemic that protects the public health and preserves due process. As they explained in their filing there is “an easy to implement, three-phase process by which order can be quickly restored” to the immigration courts.

  1. Pause the courts by granting the emergency order the immigrants rights organizations seek.
  2. Issue interim guidance by EOIR that provides for both essential and non-essential cases and presumptions that favor the public health, such as presumptions of release from custody and sua sponte custody redeterminations.
  3. Initiate a stakeholder-involved process to develop a more comprehensive continuity plan.

It really is time that the immigration courts realize we are all in this together.

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