An immigration judge in Denver is exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus and self-quarantining, a development that has fueled increased demands from those who work there that immigration courts be shut down.
"The courts need to close. We are very frustrated with how this is being handled. It's really a disaster for the public health and for our health, in particular," says Samuel Cole, director of communications for the National Association of Immigration Judges. The local judge who is exhibiting symptoms has requested anonymity.
On March 17, the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review announced that non-detained court hearings will be postponed indefinitely. But hearings will still go ahead at the detained court in Aurora, which is located at the immigrant detention facility there.
In addition to the judges' union, local immigration attorneys and unions representing immigration attorneys and ICE attorneys are also demanding that the detained court, which handles people in ICE custody, be temporarily closed.
"We’ve been told that, at the national level, that it’s mandated that we go to court, so long as it’s opened," says an attorney with ICE, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. That attorney was in court with the now-quarantined immigration judge on March 13 and noticed that the judge was coughing.
The judge said that it was bronchitis that had lasted for a few weeks, the attorney recalls. But after the judge wasn't on the court docket for this week, the attorney reached out to the Executive Office of Immigration Review staff on March 17 to find out if there was any reason for concern.
It wasn't until this morning, March 18, that the staff responded with instructions that the attorney speak with a health-care practitioner because of possible exposure to coronavirus.
"My own very, very strong belief is that I would have gotten nothing if I hadn't asked yesterday," says the attorney, who wants all courts to temporarily close down for the time being.
The attorney is joined by others whom the government is typically battling against in court. "If you can close the immigration court down over funding for a border wall, you can close it down for a global pandemic," says Christina Brown, a Denver immigration attorney, who notes that the immigration court was closed in early 2019 because of the government shutdown.
The federal government has already decided that some immigration matters deserve to be delayed in light of the spread of coronavirus. Aside from the Department of Justice canceling the non-detained court docket, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has temporarily closed all of its offices to the public; as a result, citizenship and naturalization matters and asylum requests will be delayed.
But the feds are still moving forward with the detained court docket in places like Aurora.
"That's just outrageous," says Alec Revelle, a former immigration court administrator who worked for over twenty years in the Denver immigration court. "I get that the courts have a million-plus-case backlog, but saying that you have to have staff and judges work is putting completing cases ahead of public safety."
As of early March 18, there have been 183 confirmed COVID-19 cases and two deaths in Colorado.
Right now, the Trump administration is recommending that people avoid gatherings of more than ten people. At an immigration court hearing, there can be anywhere from six to thirty people present in a courtroom, according to local attorneys.
"For the federal agencies to mandate that people basically break the recommendations of local officials and now of the president...it’s just hard to fathom why they’re doing that," says Aaron Hall, a Denver immigration attorney.
Hall actually wants the detained docket to continue moving forward, but with more safety precautions.
"They can liberally agree to telephonic appearances. They can and should be proactively releasing people who are particularly vulnerable if they did get the virus. And ICE could be stipulating to release these people even before court dates, because the detention center is not set up to be safe if there’s an outbreak," he says.
But the Trump administration is reluctant to close detained court, because it has certain deportation and completed case goals that are overriding safety concerns, some lawyers charge.
"It’s time to call bullshit on the political apparatchiks in Washington, D.C., who made conscious choices to sacrifice people’s health and lives at the altar of the Trump administration’s deportation machinery. That's what we get when the government is run by idiots and ideologues," says Hans Meyer, a local immigration attorney.
The Colorado Supreme Court has already ordered the suspension of all jury calls in state court unless the jury call is related to a criminal trial facing "imminent speedy trial deadlines."
But court isn't the only cause of worry. There is now increasing concern that the immigrant detention facility in Aurora itself could become a cesspool for coronavirus contraction.
Currently, ten detainees who were in contact with someone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are being quarantined and monitored at the Aurora facility, which is run by private prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Last week, in an abundance of caution, a cohort of ten individuals was placed under observation as a precaution based on statements made by a visitor to the facility. None of those individuals have exhibited any COVID-19 symptoms. At this time, all ICE Processing Centers have discontinued non-legal visitation,” says Pablo Paez, a spokesperson for GEO Group.
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Since those ten detainees do not fit the CDC guidance for required testing, they have not been tested, according to Alethea Smock, a local ICE spokesperson.
“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency. In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus," Smock says.
Still, some immigration lawyers think the Aurora immigrant detention facility is a disaster waiting to happen.
"They will allow detention centers to become coronavirus transmission hubs, infecting not just people who are detained, but also their families, detention center staff, court personnel and judges, just like what appears to have happened at the downtown immigration court," says Meyer.