EL PASO — The associations representing immigration attorneys, judges and federal immigration officers ramped up their calls to suspend immigration court proceedings after a new directive requiring all detention facility visitors to wear masks and other protective gear.
The directive would keep attorneys away from their clients or require attorneys and other visitors to take much-needed supplies away from doctors, nurses and other first responders during a worldwide shortage of protective gear, the groups said in a joint statement issued Sunday. The groups include the National Association of Immigration Judges, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement professionals union and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The U.S. Department of Justice's “‘business-as-usual’ approach is unnecessarily risking everyone’s lives,” said Jeremy McKinney, the lawyers association’s second vice president. “The [Department of Homeland Security]’s new policy requiring attorneys to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) in detention facilities would deny access to counsel for detained immigrants. There is a severe shortage of PPE across the nation. This requirement will make it impossible for lawyers to represent their clients unless they rob health care providers who are working to save the lives of thousands of patients of desperately needed equipment.”
The directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement was added to the agency’s guidance on its website Saturday.
Last week, the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review postponed proceedings for nondetained immigrants. But in most immigration courts, the detained dockets continue, including hearings for asylum seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols.
That means government officials, court personnel, detainees and attorneys are doing the opposite of the recommended social distancing and instead putting their health and the safety of others in jeopardy, the groups argue.
“Failing to close all of the nation’s Immigration Courts, both non-detained and detained settings, now will exacerbate a once-in-a-century public health crisis and lead to a greater loss of life,” said Judge Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “We cannot afford to wait another week.”
Asked for comment, an ICE spokesperson pointed to text on the agency's website saying that one of the agency's highest priorities is the well-being, safety and health of the people in its custody.
"Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees," the website says. "ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency."
The Executive Office for Immigration Review has temporarily closed nearly a dozen immigration courts since the outbreak began, including one in Houston. But the rest remain open, including locations in El Paso, Harlingen, Dallas and San Antonio, as well as another court in Houston.
The attorneys, judges and federal employees reiterate that some duties could be completed remotely.
“Teleworking Judges stand ready and able to work to ensure priority matters, including detained bond matters, where appropriate, are addressed using technological tools wherever possible. Most bond hearings may be conducted by telephone, and DOJ should permit all detained respondents,” the letter continues.