Trump Admin Forcing Asylum Seekers to Go to Court or Face Deportation Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

The Trump administration is facing a fresh lawsuit from immigration advocates calling on the government to stop forcing asylum seekers, migrants and their legal representatives to attend immigration hearings amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Filed by immigration advocacy groups in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday, the lawsuit demands that the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) suspend in-person immigration hearings and provide safe alternatives for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The COVID-19 global pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus, has been
characterized as the worst the world has seen since 1918," the lawsuit, filed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the Immigration Justice Campaign, the American Immigration Council and immigration attorneys, states.

"States and countries around the world have declared a State of Emergency and have shut down nonessential businesses, restricted public gatherings, and imposed 'shelter-in-place' orders in an attempt to control the spread of the disease," it continues. Meanwhile, "tens of thousands of people in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 2,100 have died in the United States alone."

But, while the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have specifically pointed to in-person court appearances as a risk factor for coronavirus outbreak and federal courts and the Bureau of Prisons have taken measures to minimize that risk, the lawsuit accuses EOIR of failing to take the same measures.

"Most immigration courts remain open for in-person business, putting the health and safety of individuals in immigration detention and their attorneys at risk," it asserts.

While immigration hearings for those who are not currently detained in the U.S. have been postponed until May 1, those who are awaiting proceedings are still expected to attend in-person hearings, raising the alarm for the safety of migrants, asylum seeker and attorneys.

Instead of allowing any in-person hearings to continue, immigration advocates have called on the government to suspend the hearings and instead "provide robust remote access alternatives for detained individuals who wish to proceed with their hearings for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Immigration hear
Undocumented immigrants leave a U.S. federal court in shackles on June 11, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. Immigration hearings have continued amid the coronavirus outbreak. John Moore/Getty

In addition to providing safe alternatives, immigration advocates have demanded that the government "guarantee secure and reliable remote communication between noncitizens in detention and their legal representatives."

They have also called on the government to ensure that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) be guaranteed for detained noncitizens and their legal representatives if they do need to meet in person at facilities where PPE is required for entry.

Alternatively, they have said, the government can "release detained immigrants who have inadequate access to alternative means of remote communication with legal representatives or with the immigration court."

Newsweek has contacted the DOJ and Department of Homeland Security for comment.