Immigration courts and services will largely pause during the coronavirus pandemic.
The nation’s immigration courts have stopped holding most hearings, the Justice Department has announced, with several locations closing entirely.
The nationwide hearing postponement meant to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus will apply to immigrants not currently in detention. Detained cases will proceed, meaning only 10 courts will shutter. The postponements will last through April 10.
The partial closures follow repeated requests from immigration judges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys and immigration lawyers. The groups had castigated the Trump administration for not closing the courts, saying the Justice Department—where the Executive Office for Immigration Review and its court system are housed—had not taken the safety of its employees and constituencies seriously enough.
“The Department of Justice’s current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is insufficient and not premised on transparent scientific information,” the National Association of Immigration Judges said in conjunction with groups representing ICE employees and immigration lawyers. “The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our immigration courts.”
An Executive Office for Immigration Review spokesperson said case updates on its hotline and online may not be complete for those postponed "due to operational changes during the coronavirus pandemic.”
The administration’s reluctance to close courts likely resulted in part due to an unprecedented backlog of cases pending before the immigration review office, which currently stands at 1.1 million. Immigrants are receiving court dates several years into the future. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on Tuesday it would close all field offices through April 1, meaning it will postpone all scheduled asylum interviews and other in-person services. The announcement coincided with a White House directive for all agencies to limit face-to-face interactions with individuals.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review is the latest executive branch court to postpone hearings. The Merit Systems Protection Board, which is facing a backlog issue of its own, has closed all of its facilities, though some hearings will still proceed by phone. The Social Security Administration on Tuesday announced it would close all field and hearing offices, though it too will conduct some tele-hearings for disability claims. SSA courts also have a backlog of more than a half-million cases.