The Justice Department announced late Tuesday that it’s shutting down some—but not all—immigration courts due to the coronavirus crisis, and will be hearing only the cases of people who are currently detained by federal immigration officials. The National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), a union that has been forcefully advocating for temporarily shuttering the immigration court system as a matter of public health safety, called it “big step forward.”
Still, the group and advocates say it’s not as far as the administration can truly go. Not all immigration courts were shut down, and other people, including asylum-seekers and children who have been subject to the Trump administration’s inhumane and illegal anti-asylum policy, are still being forced to go to crowded immigration court hearings, “jeopardizing public safety,” NAIJ said.
While the Justice Department has begun temporarily halting some immigration court hearings, this isn’t applying to the roughly 62,000 asylum-seekers who have been forced to wait out their cases in Mexico under Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico. The AP reported that Monday morning, over two dozen asylum-seekers “wearing face masks” were escorted from Mexico to the U.S. for court. “Journalists were barred from the courtroom on the grounds that it was too crowded. A lawyer who attended said the judge appeared by video conference, and few, if any migrants wore masks once the hearing began.”
Attorney Robyn Barnard tweeted that at one such immigration court, she witnessed a group of 50 asylum-seekers filing into one small waiting room. “No hand sanitizer,” she wrote. “One paper sign telling people to wash hands. So many little babies here today.”
In what BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz described as “an unprecedented alliance,” ICE prosecutors this week joined NAIJ and the American Immigration Lawyers Association in calling for aggressive action to protect both immigrants and immigration court staff, urging the Justice Department to close all 68 immigration courts nationwide, writing that “Our nation is currently in the throes of a historic global pandemic.”
“Coordinated through the leadership of the NAIJ, the organizations 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,” they continued. “NAIJ proactively called for the DOJ to take the steps necessary to protect the Immigration Judges, the Immigration Court staff, and the public we serve. As of Sunday, March 15th, the DOJ has failed to institute adequate measures to protect our court’s personnel and the public during this public health crisis.”
The measures frankly remain inadequate in the face of warnings that the U.S. could soon mirror the human devastation seen in countries like Italy. “U.S. hospitals are on the cusp of too many severely ill patients without enough intensive care unit beds and ventilators to keep those patients breathing,” USA Today reported on Wednesday. More can be done to save lives, and the administration knows that. “Detained and MPP must close immediately,” NAIJ continued. “Every day of delay will cost lives.”