Imagine an attorney working in Portland representing immigrants in detention. Her clients have hired her because the government is trying to deport them from the U.S., and they are afraid to return to their home country. As their attorney, she will argue for their ability to stay in the U.S. While she knew that this work would be challenging, she did not anticipate that it could severely impact her and her community’s physical health.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, her office has closed. The immigration court in Boston, the nearest immigration court for Mainers, continues to hold hearings for detained immigrants. Because of this, she cannot put her work on hold or simply work from home. The gravity of her clients’ cases is overwhelming and their safety depends on her advocacy in court, despite the dangers of traveling to Boston and possibly being exposed to COVID-19.

This is the reality for many immigration attorneys at the moment. As a student attorney in Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, I have worked closely with a coalition of advocates to provide legal advice to immigrants detained at the Strafford County Department of Corrections in New Hampshire. Through this work, my colleagues who represent immigrants in the Boston courtroom have shared their concerns with the continued operation of immigration courts.

Appearing in person in Boston means passing through security, and working shoulder-to-shoulder with judges and staff in small courtrooms. Additionally, some detained immigrants continue to have in-person hearings at this courthouse. They are escorted to court from a detention center by guards. The clients, their attorneys, family members, and witnesses all wait for hearings in the courthouse hallways, potentially exposing one another to the virus and then returning home where they could potentially expose their families and local communities.

On March 17, an individual who was presumed positive for COVID-19 was present with 17 others in a Boston immigration courtroom. The next day, the judge took it upon herself to close her courtroom temporarily. As of last week, hearings for detained immigrants were happening almost every day in Boston. A deputy sheriff in Strafford County, New Hampshire, also recently tested positive for COVID-19. These sheriffs transport immigrants from facilities to the Boston courthouse. Late in the evening on April 2, the Executive Office for Immigration Review announced that the Boston court would be closed the following day. But, there has been no indication that this court will close for an extended period of time.

While attorneys have the option to appear by video, if the attorney described above chooses this option, she cannot object to evidence that the government presents against her clients. Appearing by video would likely be damaging to her client’s case. She must weigh her, her family’s and her community’s health against the risk of deportation to her client. If she is unable to appear in person to advocate to her fullest on behalf of her client, her client might be deported. Should she have to make such a choice?

Judges and attorneys for the U.S. government are bewildered by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review for disregarding public health by allowing many of these courts to remain open. In an unprecedented move, the National Association of Immigration Judges, the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Professionals Union and the American Immigration Lawyers Association have united to call for the emergency closure of all U.S. immigration courts. Why is the Executive Office for Immigration Review not listening to those who are affected daily by the risk of further spread?

Court closures would mean hearings are rescheduled for later dates, giving attorneys and clients a safer setting in which to make their case. Keeping immigration courts open sends the message that deportation is a national priority over the health of immigrants, judges, attorneys, clerical staff and our communities. As Mainers, we must hold the Executive Office for Immigration Review accountable and urge our representatives to demand that the Executive Office for Immigration Review close all courts across the country for a period of time that is in line with national social distancing measures. In the interest of public health, immigration courts must close immediately.

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