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Coronavirus in Texas

Amid coronavirus concerns, Justice Department continues "remain in Mexico" hearings in immigration courts

It was business as usual Monday on the Migrant Protection Protocols docket in federal immigration courts, and groups that work in them are raising concerns about the risk to migrants and court staff.

Migrants make camp at a makeshift migrant camp at the base of Paso del Norte International Bridge in Ciudad Juárez on Thur...

Attorneys, advocacy groups and even some federal immigration agents are banding together to urge the Department of Justice to temporarily halt all immigration hearings amid the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review announced Sunday it was postponing hearings through April 10 for all immigrants who aren't being detained.

But it was business as usual for migrants who are part of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols. The program, which began last year in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, returns most asylum seekers to Mexico to wait out their asylum hearings in U.S. courts. And because the government considers those migrants to be in detention — even though they're not physically in the U.S. — the new policy doesn't apply to them, said Brooke Bischoff, a staff attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.

There are three COVID-19 cases in El Paso and 53 confirmed cases in all of Mexico. But authorities expect those numbers to rise after more tests are conducted. Crowding migrants in close quarters —which is part of the process for migrants under MPP when they finally get court hearings — is the opposite of social distancing, Bischoff said.

“Everything from the process of getting onto the [international] bridge, whether waiting in a huge line early in the morning to present themselves to inspection and being in close quarters, to being driven to courts, is all super crowded, and there is not any access to any sanitation.”

The migrants then must appear in a courtroom — along with lawyers, bailiffs, judges and other court personnel. Requiring so many people to stay in a room together — often for hours — has made unlikely allies out of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, judges and immigration attorneys. Unions and organizations representing the various groups issued a plea to the Justice Department to halt all immigration dockets, not just the non-detention dockets.

“Our nation is currently in the throes of a historic global pandemic. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is insufficient and not premised on transparent scientific information,” says a letter authored by the National Association of Immigration Judges, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 511 (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Professionals Union) and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our Immigration Courts,” the letter added.

Chito Vela, an Austin-based immigration attorney, said the concerns aren't confined to the border area.

“For example, the immigration court in San Antonio serves people in Laredo, in Del Rio, it serves people in Austin and in Waco,” he said. “If they have court on whatever day, people from all over that region all pack in to an immigration courtroom.”

A spokesperson at the Executive Office for Immigration Review declined to comment and would only confirm the postponement of the non-detained docket.

Should the virus spread in the border area with the same speed as in other parts of the world, the squalid conditions in migrant shelters and encampments where many migrants are waiting for their chance to claim asylum under MPP could exacerbate the spread.

Taylor Levy, an El Paso-based immigration attorney, told The Texas Tribune on Monday afternoon that she was in a Ciudad Juárez immigrant shelter where social distancing wasn't possible.

“Imagine a house that’s the size of a single-wide trailer, maybe smaller. And there are 22 people living in it,” she said. “They have no bunk beds, and instead it’s just mattresses on the floor.

Levy said the migrants and the shelter workers are concerned about the virus, and it’s adding to the anxiety and depression the migrants have experienced since being sent back to Mexico and being forced to wait. But that won’t necessarily change if the MPP hearings get postponed.

“I’ve spent all day telling people that their court dates might be canceled so they could be prepared for it,” she said. “And I am watching people’s faces fall, and they start shaking and they start crying, and they’re trying to process the fact that they’ve already waited so long.”

About 20,000 people have been sent to Ciudad Juárez under the MPP program since last March, although it’s unclear how many have returned to their home countries or been denied asylum since then.

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