On Tuesday night — over a day after several Bay Area counties issued shelter-in-place orders barring most people from leaving their homes — the San Francisco immigration court sent an email to staff: Hearings were being postponed nationwide for most immigrants, so the court would be closed starting Wednesday. (The text of the email was provided to ProPublica.)
On Wednesday, however, employees were directed to get onto a conference call, according to two participants. There they were told the Tuesday night email was wrong. The court wasn’t closed. They would have to come into the office — or use their vacation time to stay home. When staff asked about the shelter-in-place orders, the response was that the Department of Justice, which runs immigration courts, took the position that those were local laws and didn’t apply to federal employees.
The Trump administration has reduced immigration court operations in the past week, by postponing hearings for non-detained immigrants and closing a handful of courts to the public. Those actions came after the unions representing immigration prosecutors and judges issued a rare public call for courts to close.
The reduced court operations came after weeks of employees raising concerns privately and, they say, receiving few and unhelpful answers. And because the closures are determined solely by whether a court is hearing cases of detained immigrants, rather than by the level of health peril, employees still feel they’re putting their health at risk every time they come into the office as instructed.
That’s the picture that emerges from interviews with 10 federal employees who work at immigration courts across the country. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity. Many said they had raised concerns internally about their exposure to COVID-19 to their managers or hadn’t been informed of potential exposures.
“When I signed up for this job, I thought it might be morally compromising at times,” one immigration court employee told ProPublica, “but I never thought it would be compromising of my health and safety.”
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the DOJ agency that oversees immigration courts, told ProPublica that agency headquarters was responsible for deciding when courts closed, but it did not confirm or deny specifics of the employees’ allegations, saying, “We do not comment on internal communications or internal personnel operations.”
In Denver, one prosecutor interviewed by ProPublica was alarmed by a judge’s frequent coughs during a hearing last Friday. “Don’t mind my coughing,” the judge said, according to the prosecutor. “I don’t think it’s coronavirus.” The following Tuesday, the prosecutor noticed that the judge was out for the rest of the week and emailed a court staffer in concern: Was it the coronavirus? Should she be taking precautions? The staffer’s reply: For privacy reasons, the prosecutor’s questions couldn’t be answered.
Only after news broke to the public on Tuesday night that a judge at the Denver immigration court had been diagnosed with COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) did court officials follow up with the prosecutor and confirm her suspicions. Other attorneys the judge had been in close contact with were notified the next day. The court remained open through Thursday, when the entire building it was housed in was shut down for deep cleaning by the General Services Administration. (It’s currently set to reopen Monday.)
In New York, legal aid groups sent a letter to immigration court officials saying that two of their attorneys had symptoms of COVID-19 and a third had been exposed to someone who’d tested positive. All three attorneys had appeared in court the past week, and all had hearings scheduled the following day. The courts didn’t say anything to their employees about the letter, according to multiple sources.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has pressured the immigration courts to process as many immigrants as quickly as possible — pressuring judges to hear more cases and complete them within a year, and making it harder for immigrants or attorneys to postpone hearings. Now, they face a public health crisis that requires everyone to reduce person-to-person contact.
Immigration court workers have two concerns. The first is that the courts are often crowded and require close contact with members of the public. The second is that, like most employees of any type, especially those who take public transit, they are exposed every time they leave their homes to work.
Employees remain concerned about their exposure over the past few weeks, while courts were running as usual. Employees in New York and California — the states hardest hit by the pandemic to date — told ProPublica that their requests for “deep cleaning” were rejected by managers, and that they were bringing their own Clorox wipes and disinfectant spray to the office.
Most immigration court business happens in person. Even trying to postpone an immigration hearing (for example, due to illness) requires an attorney to file a paper form with a clerk. And if an immigrant doesn’t show up for a hearing, they’re at risk of getting ordered deported in absentia. In at least one New York court, according to two people who work there, the chief judge told employees Monday to issue absentia deportation orders if immigrants weren’t showing up, even if the coronavirus was the suspected cause.