After weeks of pressure from immigration judges and lawyers, driven by fears of the fast-spreading coronavirus, the Justice Department agreed to shut down most hearings at New York’s two immigration courts. There are some exceptions: all hearings for detained immigrants, including children who are in federal custody, will continue.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the agency within the DOJ that administers the immigration court, said that the juvenile docket, hearings for unaccompanied minors who are living in shelters run by the federal government, will continue, but did not respond to further questions at the time of publication.
“This just isn’t consistent with the federal guidelines that groups larger than 10 shouldn’t be convening at all,” said Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities Community Services. And “we really think that for the safety of both [court] staff, our staff, and the children that we’re working with, you need to completely stop the court hearings.”
On Wednesday at midnight, EOIR announced that New York’s immigration court would halt all of its non-detained hearings due to fears around the coronavirus. The announcement came after weeks of public pressure from the National Association of Immigration Judges and immigration advocacy groups. In an unprecedented move, a union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys joined judges and lawyers in calling for the complete closure of the courts.
Things were exasperated further on Monday when the internal system at the immigration courts suffered a complete shutdown, leading to chaos at the courts.
The latest juvenile court hearings were on Tuesday, according to Hannah Flamm, managing attorney for the Detained Minors Project at The Door. These hearings took place at the 26 Federal Plaza immigration court in Manhattan.
“There was almost nobody on the streets of lower Manhattan until getting to the courts,” Flamm said.
At the hearing, legal assistants were frantically spraying Clorox into the air in the courtroom, in hopes of stopping the spread of the virus, Flamm recalled. However, the CDC recommendation of staying six feet apart was not observed as lawyers, children, shelter workers and a prosecutor for ICE were packed into the hearing room. The CDC guidelines of gathering less than ten people in a room would be impossible to follow in these hearings. Upon entering the building, there were 30-50 people waiting to go through security, before getting in elevators that were packed with people, Flamm described.
The judge mainly set new hearings for May 5th, 2020. Flamm explained that most children aim to receive asylum through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but since they have shut down all asylum interviews in response to the coronavirus, that will be impossible, which may lead to some children eventually receiving removal orders if their court cases are forced to proceed.
Flamm’s office was temporarily closed after they were potentially exposed to someone with the virus in their building.
The children in these hearings are mainly asylum seekers who entered the U.S. without a legal guardian and were then placed in federal custody. They are housed in shelters that have contracts with the government. New York is home to many of these shelters. Workers from the shelter will escort them to hearings like Tuesday’s.
Children are usually connected with a sponsor and released from the shelters as quickly as possible. That process has been complicated now due to the coronavirus making it difficult to carry out the required vetting procedures, which include fingerprinting, medical clearance and other things.
Other parts of the immigration enforcement infrastructure have continued. ICE announced on Wednesday that it would be reducing arrests, but it will continue to arrest people with criminal records. According to the Immigrant Defense Project, at least 13 raids have been carried out in New York in the past week. ICE has also resisted calls to release individuals from detention who are at risk due to the virus.
According to Enriquez, the shelters are observing the same guidelines as all foster care homes in New York State outlined by the Office of Children and Family Services. Foster care homes have remained open, as closing them could make the children housed there homeless.
There have been no reported coronavirus cases for children or workers in shelters, according to Enriquez. Catholic Charities is communicating with the children they are representing through video chats and telephone contact with clients.
EOIR issued a policy memo on Thursday in regard to the coronavirus which gave a number of recommendations for conducting hearings. These include telling judges they may waive the presence of immigrants who have lawyers and they may delay hearings “with good cause.” The National Association of Immigration Judges and the American Immigration Lawyers Association welcomed the new guidance but said they did not go far enough as cases for detained children continue.