Trump Administration Orders Immigration Court Staff to Pull Coronavirus Warnings Down—Then Tells Them to Put Them Back Up

Immigration courts across the country were reportedly ordered to remove coronavirus warning posters written in English and Spanish from their courtrooms and waiting areas this week, before being ordered to put them back up again.

According to the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), the union representing immigration judges in the U.S., the association had recommended that immigration judges display coronavirus warning posters produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in courtrooms and public waiting areas.

Not long after, however, the association claimed that the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which falls under the Department of Justice (DOJ), ordered judges to pull the posters down.

"Here are links to the English language versions of the offending flyers," the organization wrote in a tweet, sharing a link to the CDC's "Stop the Spread of Germs" poster.

Here are links to the English language versions of the offending flyers:https://t.co/UKv0sFFxx4https://t.co/HVzmE0g7SF

— Immigration Judges (NAIJ) (@Imm_Judges_NAIJ) March 9, 2020

In NAIJ's initial guidance sent out to judges on Monday, the union's Director of Communications Samuel Cole said the organization had repeatedly reached out to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which falls under the Department of Justice (DOJ) for "guidance on coronavirus, as well as resources (such as hand sanitizer)" but said "neither has been forthcoming."

As a result, Cole said the union had decided to take matters into its own hands and share the CDC's Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers, as well as two sets of posters with information on "COVID-19 Symptoms" and how to "Stop the Spread of Germs" prepared by the centers with judges.

In the letter, Cole also shared a number of recommendations on behalf of NAIJ, including for judges to hang the posters in public areas and the doors to their courtrooms; to stay home if they are feeling sick and encourage others in the court to stay home; to not allow anyone who appears "symptomatic" into their courtrooms; to wash their hands frequently, to use hand sanitizer and use disinfecting wipes to clean commonly used surfaces.

The guidance also suggested that judges take all "prudent steps to reduce the number of people in court," including holding closed hearings that might normally be open to the public.

Not long after Cole sent out the notice to judges, however, the EOIR sent out a mass email to judges and other court staff members ordering them to remove any coronavirus posters they had put up, according to The Miami Herald.

"This is just a reminder that immigration judges do not have the authority to post, or ask you to post, signage for their individual courtrooms or the waiting areas," the email, written by Christopher Santoro, the U.S.' acting chief immigration judge, reportedly said.

"Per our leadership, the CDC flyer is not authorized for posting in the immigration courts. If you see one (attached), please remove it. Thank you," the letter stated.

Hours after the Herald published a story on the order, however, the DOJ appeared to reverse the EOIR's decision, with a spokesperson telling the newspaper that the signs "shouldn't have been removed."

"It's now being rectified," the spokesperson said.

In a separate email sent to Newsweek on Tuesday morning, DOJ Public Affairs Officer Alexei Woltornist said Santoro had "just" sent an email to immigration judges telling them to print out CDC coronavirus warning posters and "post them on each courtroom door and at the court window." Any judges who had already thrown away previous CDC posters would have had to print them out and post them once again.

"As the Department of Justice continues to work closely with the Vice President's Task Force, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and State and Local Government leaders regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, we are working to provide you and your immigration court staff with resources to support your important mission," Santoro said before issuing the guidance to post the warnings. "As Government officials who are in constant contact with the public during the work day, we recognize the need for you to have information to share, and it is critical that such information is accurate and as up-to-date as possible."

Coronavirus warning
People walk by posters with health information inside a subway station on March 8, 2020 in New York City. Immigration judges in the U.S. received an order to remove coronavirus warning posters, before being told to put them back up again. KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty

The DOJ did not provide a comment on why the EOIR would have ordered judges to remove coronavirus warning posters in the first place.

Speaking with The Herald, NAIJ President A. Ashley Tabaddor said the incident was "as baffling to us [as] why EOIR is failing to take any concrete steps, consistent with the CDC and the [U.S. Office of Personnel Management] to safeguard the health of its employees and the public."

"It appears that it is taking an ostrich approach of sticking one's head in the sand and hoping it would all go away," Tabaddor said. Newsweek has contacted NAIJ for comment.

According to the Johns Hopkins University's online coronavirus tracker, as of Tuesday morning, there were more than 116,000 cases of coronavirus confirmed worldwide, with 4,088 resulting in death. In the U.S., at least 761 cases had been identified, with 27 of those resulting in death.