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ICE prosecutors and immigration judges demand that courts close amid coronavirus fears

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The unions that represent immigration prosecutors and judges, as well as the bar that represents immigration attorneys nationwide, are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to shut down its immigration courts nationwide for at least two to four weeks as the new coronavirus continues to spread.

The three groups — the National Association of Immigration Judges, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 511, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association— demanded the emergency closure in a letter Sunday, calling on agency officials to recognize “the urgency of this public health crisis.”

“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,” the letter said. “[We] urge immediate action to close our courts in light of the broad scope of the health and safety challenges facing our nation and the immigration court system.”

The letter comes two days after the DOJ announced that it will close the immigration court in Seattle and would limit the size of some hearings at 10 immigration courts in six cities for four weeks.

The immigration prosecutors, judges, and lawyers say that is “woefully insufficient.”

“We applaud the DOJ’s decision to close down the Seattle Court as it recognizes the need to place the health and safety of the community first. However, the DOJ has provided no scientific or reasoned basis to explain why one locale deserves this type of protection, while the immigration courts in the rest of the country are being provided with either partial health and safety solutions, or worse, no health and safety precautions at all.”

As of Sunday, President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency, 39 states had declared state emergencies, and dozens of cities and towns across the country had declared their own emergencies.

A week ago, the immigration judges’ union called on the government to allow court staff to put up posters that educated court-goers on how to prevent catching or spreading the virus. DOJ subsequently told all judges and staff members in an email that all posters had to be removed immediately.

The Miami Herald published the story about the email, which was sent by Christopher A. Santoro, the country’s acting chief immigration judge. About four hours later, the administration reversed itself and told judges and staff that the posters could go back up.

The DOJ has yet to respond to any emails from the Herald regarding the matter.

On Friday, immigrant community leaders publicly demanded that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cancel all check-in appointments at the Miramar office. Every day, hundreds of people line up for their immigration check-ins.

On Saturday night, ICE told the Herald that pausing check-ins is not in the plans.

“At present time the agency has not [considered it],” the agency said in an email. “However, in accordance with established practice, persons can call ahead and request to reschedule their appointment for a later date.”

This story was originally published March 15, 2020 7:55 PM.

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