Could the immigration courts get more chaotic? Coronavirus adds to stress

Tribune Content Agency

DALLAS — Only a dozen people were waiting for hearings on a recent day in the lobby of the Dallas immigration courts—a fraction of what’s normal when Dallas immigration attorney Fernando Dubove usually makes his way into the courtrooms.

Meanwhile, federal criminal courtrooms on multiple floors of the same downtown granite courthouse were closed completely. They were shuttered two weeks ago.

Immigration courts across America have long buzzed with busy attorneys and families rejoicing or weeping over a halt or an order of deportation. But coronavirus has taken the stress to new levels because the Trump administration refuses to temporarily close them.

One judge had a clerk tell Dubove and other attorneys that bond hearings would be conducted by phone. But another judge conducted his bond hearings with Dubove in the courtroom. Nearby were an opposing government attorney, the judge, a court clerk. The detainee watched live via video from at a detention center

“It’s all just so patchwork now,” Dubove said. “Every judge is doing this their own way.”

Hearings for immigrants not in federal custody have all been postponed, but in most cases, it’s business as usual for immigrant detainees and their lawyers. Many attorneys are showing up in court wearing masks and gloves in Dallas and elsewhere. Some Dallas judges are allowing attorneys and clients from only one case at a time into their courtrooms to maintain some control of social distancing.

Attorneys and even judges are in an uproar over the refusal to close the courts to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The national judge’s association has vigorously fought for closure, taking to social media with almost the uppercase zest of President Donald Trump. “Now stop playing Russian roulette with our health and CLOSE THE COURTS,” read one tweet.

The union posts daily photos of immigration lawyers wearing hospital masks, or reports of confirmed COVID-19 cases among immigration system staff or detained immigrants.

A guard at a Conroe, Texas, detention center and an interpreter in Elizabeth, N.J., have tested positive for COVID-19, the union said. Two immigrants in detention on the East Coast have also tested positive. ICE has acknowledged five staffers have confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Denver, Houston and Elizabeth, N.J. area.

That was just the beginning. Many expect the virus to pass through the courtrooms, too.

“We really are in the middle of the most important public health crisis of the last century,” said Ashish Jha, a physician who is the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

In a media call with the judges’ union, the union of trial attorneys of Immigration Customs Enforcement and with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Dr. Jha said, “We need to take decisions that have substantial consequences — shutting down courts … I am deeply worried that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Americans, are going to die of COVID in the upcoming months.”

ICE said in a statement that it is trying to reduce social interaction and “maximize to the extent possible the appearance via telephone of (ICE) attorneys in immigration court proceedings.“

Meanwhile, attorneys like Dubove try to juggle shifting policy rulings, temperaments of judges, and asylum-seeking clients who live in Dallas or are stuck in border cities like Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez. He was successful in getting bond for his clients at the two hearings in Dallas, including one where the judge sent his two character witnesses home when they all showed up on the 10th floor.

Dubove prefers that bond hearings not be postponed because they offer the chance to spring his clients from detention. “That’s big,” he said.

But he worries about immigrant clients once they are freed on bond. “Are they going to test them before they are released? Who knows? This is a mess on so many levels.”

Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, a Dallas attorney prominent in the immigration lawyers association, said due process is being hurt by the COVID disease. In telephonic hearings, it’s impossible to object to documents in the manner an attorney would do in court, she said. “We are given a ‘false choice’ because we are forced to choose between exposing our clients, ourselves, our families or giving up the due process rights that our clients deserve. It’s an unacceptable proposition for all of us.”

There’s also increasing worry over conditions in border courts, detention centers and migrant camps along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

There were 38,000 immigrant detainees in federal facilities around the nation through March 21, according to ICE.

About 63,000 asylum-seekers have gone through the MPP program, and a third still have cases pending, meaning most of them are waiting just across the border for their cases to be heard on U.S. soil, said a Syracuse University-based nonprofit.

Hearings in those MPP cases have been postponed until April 22.

Dubove saw other problems that have been aggravated by the coronavirus, too.

He had to walk two client families through the policy shifts by telephone because they were in Matamoros and part of a controversial program called the Migration Protection Protocols that keep asylum seekers in Mexican border cities until hearings.

He was personally relieved when he learned three asylum hearings for clients would be postponed in the crowded immigration court-trailers in Brownsville as worry grows over the coronavirus spread.

“How do you do any social distancing?” he asked.

Dubove’s Honduran clients have become depressed. The family of four lives in a ramshackle tent camp in Matamoros and they believed a hearing this week would get them across the finish line—into the U.S.

“We are here in a city that is so dangerous,” Marta Saravia said in a phone interview from the Matamoros camp she’s lived in since October. But dangers were worse in San Pedro Sula, she said. And her boys had just hit their teen years, making them ripe targets for gang recruitment.

At the same time, immigration attorneys and advocates like the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center are pushing for the release of many immigrants now in detention facilities around the U.S.

Public health officials have said detention centers, and prisons, are petri-dishes for infection. Already, the Dallas County jail had seven cases of confirmed COVID among its population on Friday.

“Crowded detention facilities are ideal incubators for disease, threatening the health not just of the detained, but of surrounding communities,” Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, said Thursday in a news conference by telephone. “To safeguard public health, nonviolent detainees should be released and allowed to self-isolate.”

Asked about postponements that cause immigrants to linger longer in detention centers, ICE said, “Individuals in detention with pending cases should have cases resolved promptly and fairly.”

Tensions are clearly on the rise in the detention centers. On Monday, in Pearsall, near San Antonio, guards reportedly pepper sprayed about 60 immigrants who rioted and demanded their release for fear of catching the coronavirus. The detention center holds about 1,900, according to Geo Group, which operates the facility.

At the Prairieland detention center in Alvarado, about an hour south of Dallas, fights have broken out among detainees, said Krystal Gregory, a U.S. citizen whose U.K.-born husband is detained there.

“He said people are fighting among each other,” Gregory said. “They are stressed out exceptionally because they are detained and then you add coronavirus on top of it. It is ridiculous.”

To relieve detainee stress, Prairieland is allowing them two free five-minute phone conversations, she said. Gregory said her husband, Gavin Gregory, said social distancing is impossible. Her husband told her there were only 18 inches between beds in one section of the detention center.

LaSalle Corrections Center, a Louisiana-based company that operates Prairieland detention center, declined to respond to emailed questions.

Gregory said she worries about the stress on her 35-year-old husband. The couple have been married six years and have three children. Krystal Gregory said her husband has no criminal convictions and they have applied for legal immigration status through his marriage to a U.S. citizen. They only recently applied to change his immigration status, Gregory said.

She urged the government to release detained migrants with no criminal records or with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Ankle monitors could be used, she said.

“I love this man,” she said.


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