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Immigration judges aren’t sure how to handle the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., and the Trump administration just took away one piece of guidance they did have: bilingual posters from the CDC that provided basic information on how to avoid catching and spreading the disease.
Judges around the country hung the posters in their courts, and they explained in English and Spanish how to avoid infection: Wash your hands, avoid touching your face, stay home if you’re sick, avoid contact with sick people. But Christopher A. Santoro, the acting chief immigration judge with the Justice Department, ordered the posters taken down Monday, according to the Miami Herald, which obtained a copy of the email.
“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,” Santoro wrote. “Per our leadership, the CDC flyer is not authorized for posting in the immigration courts. If you see one (attached), please remove it.”
The judges are concerned that the courts could become a nexus of exposure to the coronavirus: Their work doesn’t exactly lend itself to telecommuting, and tons of people pass through their courtrooms on a daily basis. The judges are also worried that the immigrants that pass through their courtrooms could be especially vulnerable to coronavirus. The union that represents them sent a letter to Santoro on Monday asking for guidance on best practices to avoid the virus’s spread and how to prevent the backlog of cases from piling up in the event that the courts had to be shut down; the union also circulated the CDC flyers for judges to post in their courtrooms.
“Our work requires us to be in close contact with the public on a daily basis, often in very large numbers and groups,” the union’s president wrote in the letter. “Some of our respondents come from high-risk countries and even if they have not been to those countries since the outbreak, they may be in contact with those who have.”
The guidance they got: Take down those flyers. “EOIR [Executive Office for Immigration Review] has ordered immigration court staff to remove CDC posters designed to slow spread of coronavirus,” the union wrote on Twitter. “No, this is not a parody account.”
The Department of Justice appeared to be backtracking on the decision to remove the posters. “The sign should not have been taken down. The matter is being rectified,” a Department of Justice spokesperson later told CNN.
Still, it’s not clear that any contingency plans are in place to avoid the spread of the virus through the immigration court system or to avoid the expansion of the immigration court backlog should the courts have to be shut down. More than 1 million cases are currently pending in the immigration courts, which means hearings have to be scheduled out years in advance.
"If this thing gets out of control, it's always a problem when cases are canceled, given the backlog," Lawrence K. LeRoy, an immigration lawyer based in Newark, told CNN about the potential for a court shutdown due to the virus.
Cover: A detainee mops the floor at the intake station at the Stewart Detention Center, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Lumpkin, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)