The Trump administration is taking actions that may contribute to the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) among immigrant communities by way of immigration courts, according to the federally-designated collective bargaining group for immigration judges.
Late Monday, the National Association of Immigrant Judges (NAIJ) said that officials with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) are intentionally impeding messaging provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that would otherwise reach immigrants currently in the immigration court system.
“EOIR has ordered immigration court staff to remove CDC posters designed to slow spread of coronavirus,” the group noted via Twitter. “No, this is not a parody account.”
The organization elaborated in a later tweet:
NAIJ had recommended to immigration judges that they post in courthouses the English and Spanish language versions of the CDC’s “Stop the Spread of Germs” and “Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019” posters. EOIR ordered that they be removed.
— Immigration Judges (NAIJ) (@Imm_Judges_NAIJ) March 9, 2020
“The NAIJ sent a correspondence to the Agency and a separate one to the [Immigration Judges] with the CDC recommended posters,” NAIJ President Ashley Tabaddor told Law&Crime. “Shortly thereafter, we received notice from our judges that those who had chosen to post the posters were told that they can not do so and the posters were literally torn down.”
Emails obtained later by Law&Crime confirm that EOIR has, in fact, ordered such removals.
In one such email, EOIR Deputy Chief Immigration Judge Christopher Santoro wrote:
Earlier today the NAIJ sent a message to immigration judges suggesting that they post a CDC-generated coronavirus precaution flyer in public areas of the courts, to include doors to courtrooms. This is just a reminder that immigration judges do not have the authority to post, or ask you to post, signage for their individual courtrooms or the waiting areas. Per our leadership, the CDC flyer is not authorized for posting in the immigration courts. If you see one (attached), please remove it. Thank you.
Another such email—from a different EOIR official—said the CDC posters “must be removed from all courts.”
The EOIR operates under the auspices of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Attorney General William Barr. The agency is currently run by Director James McHenry–a former administrative law judge who was originally appointed as acting director in 2017.
Reaction bordered from outrage to outright disbelief.
“Consistent with fake hearing dates, show trials or no trials, and an abject lack of basic human decency, the Trump Administration continues to erode the already meager protections in our immigration system,” said Angelo Guisado, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Franz Kafka couldn’t write it any better (worse).”
“[Vice President Mike] Pence is openly begging the media to distribute the CDC guidelines, but meanwhile there is a secret campaign to hide those guidelines? This story sounds fake,” chimed in University of Iowa Law Professor Andy Grewal.
“I am having no trouble reconciling these two data points,” retorted Civil Rights attorney Sasha Samberg-Champion.
“It’s irresponsible and potentially disastrous,” said California Western Law Professor Danielle C. Jefferis. “And to what end? To risk the spread of what all signs point to a highly infectious disease so that people in proceedings can’t show up to court? It’s inexcusable.”
The NAIJ recently released an open letter to Santoro calling for Immigration Courts to take several concrete steps in order to minimize the spread of the Coronavirus and to ensure the safety of judges, court staff, EOIR employees, advocates and immigrants.
The letter takes stock of the situation:
As new cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed each day, NAIJ reiterates its increasing concerns about how the virus will impact our work and what steps EOIR management is taking to protect Immigration Judges, support staff and the public. As you know, our work requires us to be in close contact with the public on a daily basis, often in very large numbers and groups.Some of our respondents come from high-risk countries and even if they have not been to those countries since the outbreak, they may be in contact with those who have. Some EOIR employees are at high risk for developing serious illness, including older employees and those with chronic medical conditions.
“Beyond our own employees, the respondents who come before us may also be at high risk for developing serious illness,” the letter continues. “Because we order their appearance and they face the prospect of removal if they don’t appear, sick respondents and respondents vulnerable to serious illness will keep coming to court unless we take action.”
Immigration attorney R. Andrew Free was askance of EOIR’s decision to remove the posters—telling Law&Crime that “the most generous explanation” for the order “is that they want to make sure to coordinate the message.”
”But rarely does the most generous explanation line up with reality,” he added.
Law&Crime repeatedly reached out to EOIR for comment and clarification on this story but no response was forthcoming at the time of publication.
Update. The DOJ is now backtracking:
— Monique O. Madan (@MoniqueOMadan) March 10, 2020
[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
Editor’s note: this story was amended post-publication to include an additional quote.