Many courts are only open for emergencies, leaving immigrants in limbo across Florida and nationally.
GAINESVILLE – Immigration lawyer Laura Cabrera hasn’t met with her clients for more than a week because of the pandemic. She speaks by phone with them as they stand just outside her office building in Gainesville, worried and wondering whether they will be allowed to stay lawfully in the United States.
Their immigration cases continue to plod along, as law firms like Cabrera’s turn to phones, Facebook messages and Skype to answer complicated inquiries. Cabrera’s staff slides legal papers immigrants need to sign through the mail slots.
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But the nation’s immigration courts – already overwhelmed with a backlog of more than 1 million cases – have effectively shut down over concerns about exposure to the virus. Citing the pandemic, the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency promised last month to delay arresting immigrants who aren’t already subject to criminal charges.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the country’s immigration courts, said earlier this week that hearings for all cases involving immigrants who aren’t in detention were postponed until next month. It’s poised to slow down an already overwhelmed system with repercussions expected to ripple for years.
As of last week, downtown Miami and Orlando’s immigration courts closed except for filings, which means that judges work from home while a skeletal crew accepts documents in the courthouse. Most courts are open only for urgent issues related to immigrants in custody.
"We've received an abundance of phone calls from folks not knowing what's going to happen [with their cases], and the guidance is changing daily," Cabrera said.
The immigration court in the Krome detention center in west Miami-Dade County closed earlier this week for a deep cleaning but is still hearing detained cases.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services canceled all in-person services at its regional field offices, like citizenship interviews and fingerprint appointments, until May 3. Oath ceremonies, in which immigrants who pass the citizenship exam are sworn in as U.S. citizens, are also postponed.
Immigration judges, attorneys and activists have urged federal agencies to protect employees and the public from the virus for weeks. In a March 26 email sent to Attorney General William Barr and EOIR Director James McHenry, dozens of advocacy groups and unions called on the Department of Justice to close all immigration courts.
Postponing non-detained hearings was "a step in the right direction" but not enough to combat the virus, said Fanny Behar-Ostrow, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 511 president, a union which represents ICE attorneys.
"I hope it doesn’t get to the point where there are major tragedies happening for them to take action," Behar-Ostrow said. "I don’t know what’s driving this recklessness."
The decision to continue detained hearings disregards CDC recommendations and local shelter-in-place orders, said A. Ashley Tabbador, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
"We can’t have people coming in as if it’s business as usual," she said.
Meanwhile, some immigrants were required to check in at ICE facilities.
One day before ICE said it would only detain individuals with criminal charges, immigrant rights advocates said 13 immigrants were picked up in Alachua County.
Larry Green, executive director of the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County, said the coalition has been in contact with the families and that all 13 were in detention facilities.
Green said agents picked up six individuals who were driving in a truck outside a Gainesville Mexican restaurant. The group – which had prior removal orders – was transported from the Baker County Detention Center to a facility in South Florida.
Cabrera said she consulted some family members of those in the truck but is not formally representing them.
However, non-criminal migrants have been arrested and taken to detention centers in South Florida since ICE’s statement, according to the Miami Herald. Meanwhile, three detention centers have quarantined sections of their facilities after detainees developed flu-like symptoms and were taken to the hospital.
"[Immigrants] are terrified to seek treatment, to look for resources, to find ways to both be informed and to take action," Cabrera said.
Health advocates also fear that non-English speaking immigrants and residents may not have access to information about the virus and how to get tested locally. Robin Lewy, co-founder of Rural Women’s Health Project in Gainesville, said the nonprofit was concerned for low-income communities in rural North Florida who do not have access to information in their language or existing medical providers.
Alachua County encouraged people who think they may have been in contact with the virus to call the county’s health department. Lewy said immigrants and non-English speakers often ask the nonprofit about how to get tested and if they will be asked about their status.
Paul Myers, the county health department administrator, said callers asking about the virus were not asked about their immigration status. He said the department’s staff has access to a language line service to get an interpreter on the phone with a caller.
The nonprofit offers a multilingual hotline and posts COVID-19 updates and information on its "Project SALUD" Facebook page in English, Spanish and Creole. The Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 website is also available in Spanish and Creole.
"This is a public health crisis, so we should be treating it as if it’s a public health crisis," Lewy said, "and that includes everyone."
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org