NEW YORK, March 17 (Reuters) – The U.S. government canceled all deportation hearings for immigrants not in detention after immigration judges and government prosecutors complained busy courts were putting them at risk of COVID-19 infection.
Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the arm of the U.S. Department of Justice that runs the nation’s immigration courts, said in statement just after midnight the closures were effective March 18, 2020, through April 10, 2020. Cases of immigrants stuck in detention will be heard as scheduled.
Mattingly did not immediately respond to a question about whether hearings for migrants returned to Mexico under a Trump administration program known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols” would continue.
The decision came after unions representing immigration judges and prosecutors from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement called for the shutdown. A dozen current government employees working in the U.S. immigration system told Reuters on Tuesday that they were concerned courts had remained open for so long despite the spreading outbreak.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made an immigration crackdown the centerpiece of his presidency and a major talking point of his 2020 re-election campaign. A key push has been to reduce the massive backlog of pending deportation cases, with the Justice Department pushing to move migrants through the system faster.
Judge Ashley Tabaddor, head of the immigration judge’s union, said in an email on Tuesday a judge in Denver has been at home with symptoms that suggest infection but has not been able to take a test to verify. And private attorney in Atlanta was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and was under self-quarantine, Tabaddor said. The attorney was in contact with two judges last week and another the week before, she added.
Separately U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that processes visa and green card applications, sent a message to all employees late on Tuesday that in-person interviews – including for asylum seekers – and naturalization ceremonies for new citizens would be canceled around the country until at least April 1.
Courts in Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, Houston, Louisville, Kentucky, Memphis, Tennessee, New York City, Newark, New Jersey and Sacramento and Los Angeles, California would shut down. The court in Seattle – in an epicenter of the U.S. outbreak – had already been shuttered.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles and Ted Hesson in Washington D.C.; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)