A federal immigration judges association called upon the Justice Department agency overseeing its courts to suspend hearings that bring large numbers of people together in the same room, in an effort to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
The letter, sent Thursday to Executive Office of Immigration Review Director James McHenry, called on the agency to completely suspend master calendar dockets for non-detained individuals, which are initial hearings that often bring 50 or more respondents together in a single courtroom, not including their families and attorneys.
Multiple master calendar hearings can take place each day in certain immigration courts, the judges wrote, and many individuals at those hearings have recently traveled internationally or live with people who have.
One attorney who was at a master calendar hearing on March 10 has told the court that “she is experiencing severe flu-like symptoms,” wrote A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
“We really think that we need to suspend immediately all of these types of preliminary hearings and just focus on the cases that are ready for trial so that those cases can be handled with the appropriate social distancing,” Tabaddor said in an interview on Thursday.
Their missive was delivered one day after the World Health Organization labeled the global coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and President Donald Trump imposed a 30-day curb on travel from Europe to the U.S.
The immigration judges’ request for help also comes as state and federal courts nationwide, including those in New York State and the nation’s capital, take steps to try to contain the contagion. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday imposed an immediate and indefinite ban on visits to its courthouse by those who do not have official business there.
The letter is the most recent communication from the union representing hundreds of American immigration court judges, asking the Justice Department office that oversees it for a response.
Thus far, the Executive Office of Immigration Review hasn’t issued guidance.
That’s concerning to immigration judges who only have sway over their individual courtrooms. Their courtrooms are often not large enough for the volume of people they bring in the first place, so the threat of the virus only increases that, Tabaddor said.
“Many times we’re dealing with fire code violations because of the large number of people here and now adding the risk of coronavirus makes it a lot more difficult,” she said.
Tabaddor said judges have tried to issue standing orders to conduct master calendar hearings by phone, but were told by supervisors to make those decisions case by case.
That’s “quite an obstacle to throw at the judges,” she said.
Absent official guidance, the EOIR tweeted March 10 that the Seattle immigration court would be closed after “a reported second-hand exposure to coronoavirus.” It has been closed since. The Seattle-area has been hard-hit by the virus.
The immigration review office and Justice Department didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from Bloomberg Law.
The new call comes after previous efforts to get information about the virus out to those attending the courts were stifled.
On Monday, the Executive Office of Immigration Reform ordered removed from the courts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posters with information about limiting the spread of the virus, after the judges’ association suggested putting them up.
In an email to judges on Monday, acting Chief Immigration Judge Christopher Santoro said they were not authorized to put the posters up and ordered them taken down. That email was obtained and viewed by Bloomberg Law.
The EOIR later restored those posters after reporting by the Miami Herald, but has not issued other guidance, Tabaddor said.
The disagreement comes as tensions run high between the Justice Department and the immigration judges association. In August 2019, the Justice Department filed a petition to decertify the union, and the association has been fighting that.
“You don’t need to be frantic or hysterical, but you need to be cautious and proactive, particularity with the nature of our job, which requires a lot of interactions with large groups of people who are on an international scale,” Tabaddor said. “We think the posters are just one step.”