How Is COVID-19 Impacting the Immigration System?

As immigration courts and detention centers fear the spread of coronavirus, migrants in the camps along the U.S. border say they are more afraid of staying in Mexico than COVID-19.

A woman carries a property bag issued by Customs and Border Protection while holding the hand of a girl wearing a mask as they arrive at a mandatory immigration court hearing on March 16 in El Paso, Texas.

A woman carries a property bag issued by Customs and Border Protection while holding the hand of a girl wearing a mask as they arrive at a mandatory immigration court hearing on March 16 in El Paso, Texas. AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio

Ten immigration courts across the country have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday night, and all hearings for immigrants who are not in detention have been postponed. This comes days after lawyers, advocates, and federal immigration officials formed an unlikely alliance, calling for immigration courts to close as coronavirus spreads.

In Texas, the only affected immigration court is in Houston—one of 11 across the state. Hearings will continue to be held in cities including San Antonio, Dallas, and El Paso, where cases of COVID-19 have all been confirmed. 

“The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) has been carefully reviewing the information available from federal officials related to the recently-declared pandemic of coronavirus,” EOIR said in a statement. “The agency continues to evaluate the dynamic situation nationwide and will make decisions for each location as more information becomes available.”

The closures were a small win for organizations involved in immigration hearings. On Monday, Leaders of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), and the American Federation of Government Employees Local 511 (the union that represents ICE professionals) signed a petition asking for the Department of Justice to temporarily close immigration courts. 

Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of NAIJ, said in a joint press conference Tuesday that coronavirus doesn’t discriminate between judges, detainees, lawyers, or law enforcement officers. She said the continued use of immigration courts would put those involved in proceedings in close quarters—elevators, security lines, court rooms. On Tuesday, following the petition, leaders of the organizations asked the department to at least have in-person hearings postponed or done by teleconference. 

“Immigration courts by definition bring many people together,” Tabbador said, adding that an Atlanta attorney tested positive for COVID-19 after being in court the previous day and a judge in Denver had symptoms.

The 10 courts closed after city, state, and federal courts across the nation had stopped operations, including the Supreme Court. Tabbour said that the Department of Justice and the Office of Immigration Review put everyone at risk by not providing guidance, using late-night tweets for communication on court operations, and generally lacking transparency with stakeholders. 

But as courts close, the thousands of detainees and asylum-seekers camped along the U.S.-Mexican border are waiting in an uncertain, and advocates say dangerous, limbo. 

In Detention

Hearings for immigrants currently held in detention will continue as scheduled in open courts. In Texas, that includes more than 14,000 people held in ICE detention centers, according to data analyzed last April by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. Silky Shah, executive director of the Defense Watch Network, is joining with other immigration advocacy groups like RAICES to call for the release of immigrants currently held in U.S. detention centers. In the past, she said, detention centers have been “breeding grounds for illnesses.”

Shah said that because detainees face a shortage of basics like soap or food, they are more vulnerable. Her organization has heard reports of immigrants and employees feeling sick, but no cases of COVID-19 in immigration detention have been confirmed. Shah, who spoke to the Observer before the DOJ’s announcement, feared that detainees would face long wait times in close quarters if the courts closed. 

Andrea Mesa, director of the RAICES family detention team serving the Karnes County Residential Center, said she is worried about the medical capacity and hygienic conditions at the facility. “There are people coming in and out and we worry it is only a matter of time until there is a positive test in the detention center,” Mesa said. 

On Wednesday, RAICES released sworn declarations from inmates at the Karnes facility complaining of lack of information and resources during the pandemic. “Here at this detention center, we don’t have access to hand sanitizer or masks, or anything else that could protect as we are all stuck together in close quarters,” one detainee wrote.

The GEO Group, which runs the Karnes center, told the Observer in a statement that it “strongly” rejects the allegations.

U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement that the Karnes facility provides residents with soap for the shower and hand soap for sink hand washing. “If residents need more soap, they are encouraged to communicate with their resident advisors and case managers to ensure they have an adequate amount,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement.

Access to Lawyers

According to ICE, visitation by members of the public at all immigration detention centers has been suspended. Attorneys will only be allowed to do window-visits with clients, while detainees who have potentially been exposed to the virus  are housed separately from other detainees.

Cristian Sanchez, an attorney for RAICES, shared his experience visiting clients in the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall on social media. He said after consulting with his clients through a cord phone, he was eventually placed in the same room as them so they could sign documents.

“They were not given a pen so they had to use mine, despite the screening sheet saying not to share,” Sanchez tweeted. “When I told the officers, their only concern was whether I had left a pen behind with my clients, not whether I could have exposed them.”

Remain in Mexico

Meanwhile, thousands remain in open air camps along the border. Under Migrant Protection Protocols, these asylum-seekers must wait in Mexico for their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. Jeremy McKinney, second vice president of AILA, said his organization and others are calling for the asylum-seekers to be paroled in the U.S. instead of being left in Mexico if courts are closed for in-person hearings. 

The Trump administration confirmed in a press conference Wednesday that the U.S. plans to invoke a law to deny entry to foreigners that the U.S. surgeon general determines could carry a contagious illness. In a statement Tuesday, the Mexican government said they were unaware of any formal requests from the U.S. government to return all immigrants detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at the southern border immediately to Mexico, a planned Trump administration policy that was reported by the New York Times Tuesday. 

Taylor Levy, an immigration lawyer based in El Paso, said she has temporarily relocated to Juarez, where she estimates 1,500 asylum-seekers are currently, to be closer to her clients in case the U.S.-Mexico border is closed. She said some of her clients have said they are more afraid of being forced to wait an indefinite amount of time in Mexico than they are of contracting COVID-19. Levy said a shelter she visited this week was reeling from a double-homicide that occurred five feet from their front door. She said after they heard the gunshots, loud banging rang across their windows and doors, what she said they believe was a form of intimidation. 

“It’s very intense, everyone is very worried about the virus in the shelters, but they are also worried about their court dates,” Levy said. 

Earlier this week, Juarez confirmed their first case of COVID-19. 

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