The union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors joined immigration judges and lawyers in calling for the immediate shutdown of courts across the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus, an unprecedented alliance that signals the deep anxiety that has spread through all facets of the US immigration system.
“These are not normal times,” Fanny Behar Ostrow, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 511, which represents ICE prosecutors, told BuzzFeed News. “This is a real crisis. We all have the same interests and the same concerns.” Ostrow is an ICE prosecutor in Miami.
They’re calling for the closure to last 2-4 weeks.
The unified statement comes days after the Executive Office for Immigration Review, housed within the Department of Justice, shut down a court in Seattle and canceled some hearings in Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and elsewhere. The three groups — the ICE prosecutors, the National Association of Immigration Judges, and American Immigration Lawyers Association — said the Department of Justice had not adequately addressed the public health emergency.
“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 groups said in a statement Sunday. “The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our Immigration Courts.”
Though the virus originated in China, it has become a global pandemic. The virus has been spreading within US communities for weeks, leading to large conferences, concerts, and other events being canceled; widespread school closures; and quarantines of entire communities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the closure of bars and breweries across the state Sunday.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. The agency has said before that it is closely reviewing the situation and consulting with relevant experts, but “there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for our courts.” A shutdown of courts could further exacerbate a booming backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases — a number that has grown during the Trump administration.
Courtrooms can be cramped as judges, attorneys, family members, experts, and others gather for hearings every day. These conditions, said Ostrow, are particularly concerning for ICE prosecutors who in recent days have been panicked, describing people coughing and appearing sick continuing to come to courtrooms.
“We have no way of knowing if somebody could be carrying the virus or be sick,” said Ostrow. “We are in very close proximity to the public.”
A public health expert consulted by the three legal groups said that the continued operation of immigration courts represented a risk to public health, according to the statement. The groups said that certain situations, like bond hearings for those detained in ICE custody, could be done telephonically with all parties.
In Los Angeles, a group of attorney advisers — who function as court clerks for immigration judges — wrote to their leaders on Sunday that the failure to stop in-person hearings was "deeply concerning because some of us are immunocompromised or take care of someone who is immunocompromised. Many of us do not have two weeks’ worth of sick leave."
In recent days, Ostrow said the ICE union has tried to push the DOJ to allow prosecutors to appear via telephone or video conferencing. Those requests, thus far, have not been accepted. Ostrow did not understand why the DOJ was resistant to closing down the courtrooms and in-person hearings given the pandemic.
“I have no idea,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
On Sunday, Newsom called for all residents over the age of 65 to self-isolate at their homes due to the coronavirus.
Dana Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco and former president of the NAIJ, said she has been stressed trying to figure out what she should do next. She is 65 years old and has two cases scheduled for Tuesday in San Francisco. The courtrooms do not have the necessary supply of hand sanitizers or tissues, she said.
“It is tremendously unfair for employees like me to have to grapple with who to listen to: my boss or my governor?” she said to BuzzFeed News. “The unnecessary stress this has caused me and my coworkers has been enormous.”