WASHINGTON (AP) — Seattle's immigration court will close down as the nation continues to grapple with managing the coronavirus pandemic, and several other large immigration courts will postpone certain hearings for immigrants who are not detained that often involve large groups.
The court in Seattle was temporarily shut down earlier this week over a report of a second-hand exposure to the virus and will remain shut until April 10. Seattle is among the areas hardest hit so far, with a cluster of deaths and dozens sickened. The number of cases in the U.S. was put at around 1,700 Friday, with about 50 deaths. But by some estimates, at least 14,000 people might be infected.
According to a statement obtained by The Associated Press from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which manages the immigration court system, other courts will remain open where the virus has struck, including Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Newark, New Jersey, and Sacramento, California. But “master calendar" dates for those who are not detained will be postponed. Those hearings can include dozens of people in a single courtroom.
"The agency continues to evaluate the dynamic situation nationwide and will make decisions for each location as more information becomes available," according to the statement from EOIR, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
There are 68 immigration courts nationwide; the others will operate as scheduled but officials with EOIR said they are evaluating and will adjust as needed.
The U.S. immigration courts are dealing with a massive backlog of 1 million cases. There have been some delays of trials among the nation's criminal courts, and some states have closed courtrooms as the virus spreads.
There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the immigration system, but it's not clear how frequently tests are being performed, if at all. There is often movement between detention facilities at the border, where some migrants enter the U.S. sick, and throughout the immigration system that has put employees on edge.
A union representing immigration judges has called for a temporary halt to the “master calendar” hearings. On Thursday, Judge Ashley Tabaddor, the head of the union, wrote to the leadership of EOIR asking for more measures be put in place to protect judges and employees.
“In the absence of uniform guidance, some immigration judges have attempted to implement their own risk mitigation strategies," she wrote. “However, these efforts have been frustrated by a time-consuming bureaucratic process that is simply not sufficient in the current circumstances.”
Tabbador also called the postponements in six cities “wholly inadequate to address the public health risk" and called on EOIR "to shut down all of these large group hearings in all immigration courts across the country.”
In El Paso, Texas, some guards work shifts at both the long-term detention center and the public courts where people are not detained. On Friday, guards were seen interacting with two dozen migrants for a mass hearing in the non-detained court, which sits on the 7th floor of a building that also has public offices for the IRS and other federal agencies.
The migrants have been required to live in Mexico while they apply for asylum. They sleep in a network of shelters in Ciudad Juarez, along with migrants from other countries and other continents.
Separately on Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it would temporarily suspend social visits at all of its detention facilities across the U.S. Officials said there were no detainees in ICE custody who had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and said canceling visitation was precautionary to “further safeguard those in our care.”
ICE holds more than 37,888 immigrants in more than 130 facilities, including local jails and prisons. But unlike other detention centers, have wide discretion on who can be released while their cases wind through the courts.
The federal Bureau of Prisons also shut down visitation; inmates at all 122 federal correctional facilities across the country will no longer be allowed visits from family, friends or attorneys for the next 30 days.
Associated Press Writer Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report from El Paso, Texas.