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Many Immigration Courts Continue In-Person Operations, Despite Calls To Pause


Federal courts across the country have largely rolled back operations, suspending some trials and holding hearings by teleconference. But many immigration courts continue to hold in-person hearings inside courtrooms in California, in Washington state, in New York. And while the Department of Justice insists on keeping these courtrooms operating, there is an unusual alliance of immigration lawyers, judges and ICE officers that's calling for the closure of all immigration courtrooms in the country.

Mimi Tsankov is part of that alliance. She's an immigration judge in New York City and a regional vice president with the National Association of Immigration Judges.


MIMI TSANKOV: Thank you.

CHANG: So New York City is still the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Is your court open today?

TSANKOV: My court is open to the extent that it is open for filings and for detained hearings.

CHANG: OK. Are you still showing up to court then physically?

TSANKOV: We're really not. The courts on paper appear to be open, but the vast majority of the cases that are scheduled to be heard before them are really reset to new hearing dates about a month from now.

CHANG: Oh, I see. So in your particular courthouse in New York City, no in-person hearings are happening at the moment.

TSANKOV: So the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is the agency in which the immigration courts are housed, issues a daily statement regarding which courts are open and closed throughout the country.

CHANG: Oh, so you have very little notice of whether or not your particular courtroom is going to be open the next day.

TSANKOV: That's absolutely true.


TSANKOV: We frequently get the information on the same vehicle that the public receives it.

CHANG: Can you just describe for us so people can picture this, how crowded can it get inside an immigration courtroom during normal times?

TSANKOV: We can have upwards of 100 cases at any one setting, and that can involve, at a minimum, the 100 attorneys generally that are appearing and the 100 respondents, as well as any of the other family members that are observing the proceedings. So it's a very large number of people squeezed into a very tiny courtroom.

CHANG: And generally speaking now, what kinds of cases are still being heard inside physical immigration courtrooms?

TSANKOV: The only types of cases that should be being heard right now are the detained dockets. And, of course, the detained dockets involve respondents or immigrants who are in a detention setting.

CHANG: But those immigrants in detention settings are in crowded conditions and very potentially at risk of contracting the coronavirus. And then there's - those are the ones that are being heard inside courtrooms?

TSANKOV: And that is what's extremely troubling to us. Our proposed solution is to try to hold those hearings in a prioritized manner and to try to hold them telephonically so that we can ensure a safe environment for all of those participants who really do need to get their case heard as quickly as possible.

CHANG: Well, one of the solutions that you mentioned is telephonic hearings or video conference hearings, right? So I'm just wondering, though, isn't that quite hard? It seems like it would be harder in a video conference or a teleconference setting to access documents that are, you know, readily accessible inside a courtroom. It can be confusing to keep track of many voices on the line at the same time. Couldn't all that affect the fairness of a hearing?

TSANKOV: It is possible. But there are many individuals who would prefer to forego some of those protections in order to just get their bond hearing heard because they view themselves as being in such a dangerous environment. I mean, we have notices of up to 77 people in one of the facilities in New York currently being tested for coronavirus. So we feel that it's better to at least hold those hearings and limp along in some way at the request of the parties so that they can get their bond hearings heard.

CHANG: Mimi Tsankov is a regional vice president with the National Association of Immigration Judges.

Thank you very much.

TSANKOV: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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