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EL PASO – Despite opposition from judges, government attorneys and immigration lawyers, 31 migrants were brought from Mexico on Monday for court hearings in El Paso, a city with two presumptive coronavirus cases.
The migrants, including about a dozen children, were wearing face masks as they walked from vans into the immigration court building Monday morning. The private security officers who brought them to court were not wearing masks.
A wide range of groups had asked that the immigration courts be shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the court appearances for migrants who are part of the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” program went forward.
“Our nation is currently in the throes of a historic global pandemic. The Department of Justice’s current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is insufficient and not premised on transparent scientific information. The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our immigration courts,” said a joint statement from unions representing immigration judges and Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys, as well as the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
El Paso has reported two presumptive positive tests for coronavirus in recent days. Neighboring Ciudad Juárez, where the migrants are staying under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, has not yet reported any coronavirus cases.
The judge scheduled to hear four cases in person in El Paso Monday morning, Nathan Herbert, didn’t come to work for his two scheduled hearings because he was “on leave,” a court official said.
The National Association of Immigration Judges is “empowering the judges to take appropriate action to safeguard themselves and the people who appear before them,” said Ashley Tabbador, president of the judges’ union. The judges’ union and other groups plan a media conference call on Tuesday to further discuss their concerns.
Another 42 people were scheduled for hearings via video with Fort Worth-based Immigration Judge Christopher Thielmann. It wasn’t clear if all 31 migrants who appeared in court Monday morning were part of Thielmann’s video hearing.
Reporters were barred from attending the hearing because all available seating was taken up by migrants, a court official said. El Paso immigration courts have space for about 30 people on benches.
People in the MPP program generally are returned to Mexico after their court hearings.
Taylor Levy, an El Paso immigration attorney, met with most of the migrants before they crossed into the United States on Monday. She said most wanted their hearings, for which they’ve been waiting for months, to go forward. But Levy said the U.S. government was placing them at risk.
“I think it’s reckless and it puts people’s lives in danger,” Levy said.
A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which runs the immigration courts, declined to answer questions about why the courts were continuing to conduct large-group hearings, and what steps were being taken to protect migrants from coronavirus during the hearings.
“Please contact (the Department of Homeland Security) for questions regarding their current practices,” said EOIR spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly, whose agency is part of the Justice Department.
Officials with Customs and Border Protection, the DHS agency responsible for the custody and transportation of migrants returning from Mexico for immigration court hearings, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
EOIR sent a tweet on Sunday saying, “All non-detained aliens’ master calendar hearings scheduled 03/16-04/10 are postponed. Usual operations for filings except Seattle. All other hearings proceeding.”
Immigration courts generally handle two types of migrants, those detained in immigration holding facilities and those who are considered “non-detained,” meaning they have been allowed to be free while pursuing immigration cases.
Government lawyers have argued in numerous court cases that people in MPP are not detained and therefore not eligible for a bond hearing that could result in them being freed in the United States. But in allowing MPP cases to move forward, EOIR seems to be classifying those migrants as detained, Levy and other immigration attorneys said.