The coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, is on everybody’s minds. Fear of this contagious virus has caused most of us to change our daily behavior. We are going out in public only when we have to, and those who can are working from home.
Of course, not everything can be done from home. Many people must go out of the house to work, to grocery shop, to go to the doctor’s office for urgent appointments. And, of course, there may be court hearings that cannot be rescheduled.
In ordinary times, there is almost no excuse for missing a court date, particularly in immigration court. But these are not ordinary times. What is going on with immigration courts in light of the coronavirus? Are hearings still being scheduled? What should you do if you are feeling ill? And if you must go to court, how can you protect yourself?
While most people who get the coronavirus experience milder symptoms and recover at home, people are, with good reason, worried about catching this virus. It is highly contagious, and at least some of those who contract it get seriously ill and must be hospitalized. A percentage of those end up in the intensive care unit on ventilators, and some of those people die. So, even though the overall risk of death is small, it is real, and it is understandable that judges, attorneys, and immigrants who have hearings scheduled are all concerned.
For many people, legal requirements are putting them in an impossible position. An increasing number of states and cities are establishing “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders. If you are allowed to leave your house for essential errands, you face a difficult choice. Do you go to court and risk becoming infected, and maybe carrying that infection home to your family? Or do you skip your hearing, placing you at risk of removal? For most people, taking the chance of removal is an unacceptable risk, even in the face of a pandemic.
Some immigration courts have been shut down due to confirmed or suspected coronavirus infection. Many of these are in areas like New York and New Jersey that have been particularly hard hit by the virus. Others may shut down as circumstances make necessary, and still other courts may remain open only for the filing of documents.
As of this writing, the Trump administration is doing its best to keep as many immigration courts open as possible. Certain courts in heavily affected areas are closed, and many others are conducting hearings by phone or teleconference. The immigration court system is massive, and it will be a struggle to keep the entire system operating through the worst of this pandemic.
Courtrooms are enclosed spaces, making social distancing difficult, if not impossible. Interpreters are often needed, crowding the space still further. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has encouraged attorneys to get and wear their own protective masks and gloves. Many are doing their best, but of course, these are in short supply, as even hospitals and first responders are being forced to reuse personal protective equipment (PPE).
Many attorneys are (understandably) unwilling to risk infection. Because they are unable to get protective masks and gloves for themselves, much less their clients, many attorneys and judges have demanded that the immigration courts close until the coronavirus pandemic is under better control. Even some judges have refused to work from the courthouse as conditions worsen. While some hearings can be conducted by telephone, others, such as those involving children, cannot.
The fact that the virus can be transmitted before a carrier shows symptoms complicates matters. In at least one case, the mother of an immigrant, who was not then showing symptoms, hand-delivered a document to the court to request a telephone hearing. She was later diagnosed with the coronavirus. It is unclear how many people she may have infected in the process of traveling to the court and filing her request.
Immigration courts already have a backlog of over a million cases. That is not likely to get better in the near future. The situation in many courts is chaotic. Immigrants, especially those who do not speak fluent English, may struggle more than usual to get their questions answered.
Currently, the number of cases of COVID-19 is continuing to climb, and rules are changing daily. If you have an immigration attorney, your smartest move is to stay in touch with them. They will be aware of the changing rules and your obligations. If you don’t have an immigration attorney, consider hiring one. You may be able to consult with them by phone or video conference. Your attorney is your lifeline to the courts.
If you have questions about the status of immigration courts during the coronavirus pandemic, we invite you to contact our law office for the most current information.