BALTIMORE — Three immigration courts reopened Monday as the government extended its push to fully restart the clogged system despite rising coronavirus cases in states where many of the small courtrooms are located.
In Baltimore, people with hearings to reach final decisions were allowed to enter the federal building housing the immigration court only if they wore masks. Benches in a courtroom and seats in a waiting area were blocked off with tape, and social distancing signs were placed on the floor and elevators.
But scheduling hearings, which can include dozens of people in a single courtroom, did not take place Monday.
Courts in Newark and Detroit also were scheduled to reopen Monday. The reopenings extend a haphazard but unmistakable march to business as usual that has outraged judges and lawyers who say the pandemic poses unacceptable risk of spreading disease.
The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review started reopening courts over the past month to non-detained immigrants, first in Honolulu on June 15 and over the next three weeks in Boston; Buffalo, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; Las Vegas; New Orleans; Chicago; Cleveland; and Philadelphia.
Changes have been frequent and last minute.
Dallas reopened June 29 but, five days later, the agency announced on Twitter that it was closing until July 17 and gave no explanation. Texas has been reporting a record number of coronavirus cases, and its governor has warned the state may have to return to a lockdown to get things under control.
San Diego, which also has seen a surge in coronavirus cases, was scheduled to reopen court on July 6 but moved it back two weeks — again without explanation.
Hearings for non-detained immigrants were suspended in March because of the public health crisis, though courts in detention centers have continued to operate on a limited basis.
The court system's backlog of 1.2 million cases becomes more crushing as long as courts are closed. The Justice Department said Monday that any court whose reopening date hasn't been announced will be closed through July.
At Baltimore's reopening Monday, security guards in the lobby of the federal building told people they could only enter without any accompanying relatives.
Among those told to wait outside was Wilfredo Vazquez, who traveled more than two hours from the West Virginia-Maryland border with his wife, who faces the risk of deportation. They drove the approximately 150 miles (240 kilometers) so she could try to file paperwork in her case after her scheduled check-in in June was canceled.
"We live very far away," Vazquez said. "So much waste of time frustrates me."
The Justice Department agency has given virtually no explanation on what public health data it is using to determine if courtrooms are safe, said Ashley Tabbador, a Los Angeles-based immigration judge speaking in her capacity as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges union.
"We keep coming back to 'what numbers are you using?'" she said. "They seem to be out of touch with the state numbers we are seeing."
Judges in Dallas have contacted the union, concerned their health is being put at risk. The union represents about 460 immigration judges who work more than 65 courts.
"People don't have trust that the agency is doing the right thing," Tabbador said.
The agency said it continually reviews guidance from the Justice Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies in making pandemic-related operational decisions.
"Consistent with public health officials' guidance, EOIR has implemented practices to help to protect all people working in and visiting EOIR spaces throughout the country," spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said in an email.
In conjunction with the reopening, the government is going to stop allowing the electronic filing of documents, which it had done as a precaution to prevent the spread of the virus.
The agency is requiring face coverings and social distancing, but it has not shared its safety protocols, such as what will be done if someone shows up with no mask, Tabbador said.
Immigration courts are often housed in office buildings — not courthouses — making it particularly difficult for people to spread apart because the rooms are small, Tabbador said, adding that there is also little ventilation, especially in older buildings. The virus may linger in the air indoors, increasing the risk of infection in those spaces, according to the World Health Organization.
Last month, a dozen Democratic senators wrote to the agency asking about the logic behind the May 29 decision to reopen the court system.
Hearings in courts for non-detained immigrants, who can come and go freely, usually require the person be there with their lawyer, especially when deciding whether someone is eligible for asylum.
"Despite these risks, you are moving ahead with the re-openings, and it is far from clear that the immigration courts and the parties who will be using them are prepared for those risks," the senators stated in the letter.
The agency "does not acknowledge the difficulties that litigants still face in effectively presenting their cases, as health concerns may continue to deter witnesses from appearing in court and office closures may make it difficult to obtain medical records, tax records, and other supporting documents," the letter states.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association has urged the agency to postpone the majority of non-detained hearings until the health crisis has subsided.