Despite virus, business as usual at immigration courts

‘It’s a real public health issue,’ says one attorney

IMMIGRATION COURTS are full of people, often pressed together in tight quarters. But the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which runs all immigration courts, has refused to shut down courtrooms nationwide, or develop a mitigation strategy to stem the spread of COVID-19.

In Massachusetts, immigration attorneys and their clients are very concerned. Some, like East Boston attorney Matt Cameron, have already begin limiting contact with others in hopes of not getting or spreading the virus. But one thing he can’t avoid is walking into court.

“It’s terrifying,” he said, saying the last time he went to court was Tuesday. “So many people are packed in. It’s a real public health issue. And then you’re concentrating everyone from all over New England and sending them home.”

The Boston court services immigrants from Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, some of which have had positive coronavirus cases.

Boston attorney Eliana Nader has been at court every day this week for her clients. “It’s business as usual there,” she said. There’s no hand sanitizer, signs, or public health guidance for the public cramming into the hallway on the third floor of the building to check the court calendar.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey sent a letter to the Department of Justice expressing concern about hygiene posters being taken down at one court, demanding that signs about coronavirus be posted around the courts in English and Spanish.

Nader believes that court hearings should be suspended, at least for those who aren’t detained. For those that are detained, it’s possible to do video conferences to move cases along, as immigration courts did during the government shutdown last year.

Cameron thinks all immigration court hearings should be suspended for six months.

Cambridge attorney Susan Church says that “immigration courts look like Petri dishes for viruses, filled to the brim with people who likely lack adequate health care options and shy away from government assistance due to fear caused by this administration.”

A spokesman for the Office of Immigration Review said that the agency is “aware of concerns raised regarding the ongoing coronavirus situation” and working with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and Centers for Disease Control to monitor the situation. It has only shut down one court in Seattle, a city that has seen a great number of COVID-19 cases.

While this could change, the spokesman said, there is no plan for any mass closure of immigration courts. “As concerns are raised, we will address them on a case-by-case basis as necessary and appropriate,” he said, adding that anyone who enters Boston’s immigration court is urged to follow CDC guidelines for hygiene.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Freelance reporter, Formerly worked for CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The union representing immigration judges is concerned. In a March 12 letter to the Justice Department, the National Association for Immigration Judges called for the immediate suspension of all non-detained master calendar hearings to protect public safety. That letter was the second sent by the union after a first elicited no response.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Friday responded to the coronavirus by ordering all empanelments in criminal and civil trials be postponed until at least April 21, although cases where juries have already been empaneled will continue.

Federal jury trials in Worcester, Springfield, and Boston have been postponed for six weeks to stem the spread of coronavirus. The restrictions will continue “until it is determined to be safe to remove them,” US District Court Chief Judge F. Dennis Saylor wrote in his order.