Judge declines to release detained immigrant families, for now – POLITICO

A federal judge in Washington has turned down a request to release dozens of detained immigrant families because of the threat of coronavirus, but ordered that immigration authorities come into compliance with federal guidelines for preventing transmission of the virus in places like the Texas and Pennsylvania detention centers where those families are held.

U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg issued the order Monday in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month arguing that the families were in grave danger because of the ease with which the virus can spread in such group settings and due to inadequate precautions being taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the centers.

Boasberg said he’s prepared to police issues like checking temperatures of detainees, making sure there is adequate soap and supplies, and sufficient space in the facilities to allow for some social distancing, but he said calls for him to force immediate releases went too far — at least for now.

“Your ask is quite a reach, though, I think at this point and it’s one that I’m not inclined to order today, certainly,” the judge told a lawyer for the detainees during a 45-minute hearing held via telephone conference. “I think that a number of the things you sought in your complaint short of release are reasonable,” he quickly added.

Boasberg, an appointee of President Barack Obama, demanded a detailed report from the government in one week about whether it is in compliance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control for “congregate” facilities, like jails. He also said authorities must turn over videos showing how closely packed-in detainees are at the centers at issue, which are located in Dilley, Texas, Karnes City, Texas, and Berks, Pa.

Near the outset of the hearing, the judge told a lawyer for the families, Susan Baker Manning, that the request for immediate release seemed like a shift from the pleas in the suit for more humane conditions taking account of the viral pandemic.

“Aren’t you moving the goal posts here a bit?” asked Boasberg.

“We’ve obviously seen enormous change in the world with the ever-increasing pandemic,” said Manning, a partner at law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius in Washington. “We need to put children and families out of harms way.”

Manning said she sees no way that the detention centers can comply anytime soon with recommendations from the CDC, like those calling for people to remain six feet apart.

“You still have three and four families to a room. It is not possible to social distance,” she said, emphasizing that the viral outbreak appears to be on a major upswing. “Giving ICE a couple of weeks to improve things is deeply problematic.”

A Justice Department lawyer representing ICE, Vanessa Molina, said the facilities are taking appropriate steps, like taking temperatures of incoming staff, having non-essential staff telework, and releasing some detainees to lower the head count at the centers.

The scope of releases of detained immigrants due to the pandemic is unclear. Officials have been vague about that process. President Donald Trump has reportedly expressed anger over news reports that immigration enforcement was being lessened due to the virus.

Molina asserted that the so-called family residential centers are complying with the CDC guidelines, but she said they don’t really give concrete answers about what’s needed to reduce the risk of infection to an acceptable level.

“Those guidelines state that the guidelines are malleable in response to the conditions of a confined setting,” Molina said.

So far, there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 at the three centers. However, four adult immigration detainees being held at county jails in New Jersey have tested positive, according to data posted on ICE’s website Monday afternoon.

While serious illness in children due to the virus is rare, Manning noted that the smallest sometimes get grave cases. “Younger children, they are in an enormous amount of danger,” she said.

The suit before Boasberg covered about three dozen families at the time it was filed March 20. Since then, some of those listed have been released while lawyers have sought to add others to the suit.

The suit is one of handful of cases, filed as the pandemic has grown, urging courts to protect immigration detainees or release them altogether.
On Saturday, a federal judge in California who has long overseen a 23-year-old consent decree involving the treatment of children in immigration custody issued an order finding “deficient” ICE’s policies related to the outbreak.

U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee, an Obama appointee, also ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to step up its efforts to release children to suitable guardians wherever possible.

Boasberg expressed worries Monday about different strands of the litigation getting tangled. “I’m concerned with interfering with her order, especially as she’s been monitoring this Flores case for quite a while,” he said.

However, Boasberg noted that Gee’s case covers only children, so may not ensure that parents in the family centers get the same protections she is enforcing for those under 18. A brief order Boasberg issued just after Monday’s arguments mandates that the adults in those detention centers be handled in compliance with CDC guidelines and all protections Gee ordered for the children last week.

A lawyer for the families, Gregory Copeland, welcomed Boasberg’s ruling.

“‘We appreciate that the Court ordered that the rights of detained children to be quickly released to sponsors are shared by their parents given the public health crisis,” Copeland said. “We hope all the families in family detention are urgently released to their sponsors as all experts agree best serves public health.”

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US is now starting to see the value of immigrant health workers – Quartz

Since it came to power, the Trump administration has waged a relentless, multi-layered war on immigration.

But it only took a few days of panic over the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes for the government to start seeing the value of at least some immigrant workers. In an announcement published on March 26, and promoted on its social media channels, the State Department called on foreign medical professionals who already have US visas to either move forward with their plans to come work in the country or, if they are already in the country, to extend their stay.

The announcement was aimed specifically at “those working to treat or mitigate the effects of COVID-19.” So-called “alien physicians”—medical residents who are in the US on a J1 visa, which is meant for exchange programs—were also encouraged to consult with their sponsors to try and extend their stays in the US.

The initial announcement, which was criticized for sounding like a plea for global health workers to abandon their home countries to help the US, was subsequently clarified to note that it only applied to medical professionals who were already in the process of applying for a US visa.

The State Department plea came not long after it suspended all other routine visa services for the foreseeable future in reaction to the spread of coronavirus. Under the Trump administration, long before the pandemic erupted, the US government has moved to limit immigration in myriad ways. Many foreign medical professionals and other hospital workers have been snared in that crackdown, reducing essential staffing at US hospitals at a critical time.

The US had already been anticipating a possible shortage of physicians and medical professionals even before the current coronavirus emergency. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimated that in a decade from now the US would likely face a shortage of about 105,000 physicians. About a fourth of all US health care workers, and a third of doctors, are foreign born.

As the health care system begins to buckle under a dramatically increased patient load, as well as a reduced workforce due to the high percentage of health workers exposed to the virus, encouraging more foreign doctors and nurses to come to the US—and lowering the legal barriers to practicing medicine as a foreign-trained physician—might be necessary.

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Three Bits of Good News on the Immigration Front – Immigration Blog

You have to look hard for them, but three bits of good news on the immigration front have emerged in the last week or so. One major one, and a couple of more obscure items.

These are, indeed, grim times for all of us, but it is useful to point out that a few things are moving in the right direction. The major development is a negative, almost invisible one: There were no immigration policy setbacks in the stimulus bill.

As an old Washington hand, I know that one of the things that the open-borders lobbyists do all too well is to insert immigration changes into the secret negotiations that lead up to the writing of an urgent appropriations package. Such as the decision in 2019 to let Homeland Security double the number of H-2B (non-skilled, non-ag foreign) workers, but in such a way that the Congress did not order the new ceiling, it permitted DHS to do so.

I was worried that specific proposals pending in the House might make it into the compromise package. One was the idea that all H-1B visas would be extended automatically for one year. Another was that the 10,000 cap on EB-5 (immigrant investor) visas apply only to the investor, not to the investor and his or her spouse and children, as it does now. (This notion would just about triple the number of immigrants admitted in this category, while not increasing the amounts being invested.)

There is a modest, by the trillion-dollar standard, allocation of $350 million for migration and refugee assistance; it would give the administration the opportunity to spend this money on virus-related issues, but does not mandate it. Further, there do not seem to be any provisions for increasing the number of refugee admissions.

One of the reasons for good news generally — and this is my speculation — is that the compromise for the big stimulus package was worked out between the Senate Republicans and the Senate Democrats rather than between the Senate and the House. In the latter case, the speaker and some of her open-borders allies would have had a stronger voice.

Or it may have been dumb luck. As one who once worked in the unemployment insurance business for a Democratic state administration, I was astounded that the Senate Republicans accepted (grudgingly) a provision that, albeit briefly, gives some unemployed workers more in benefits than they had received while working. Of course these benefits should be increased, but to that extent? Amazing.

And similar startling moves might have been included in the migration field, but were not. Whew!

Meanwhile, on the administrative rather than the legislative front, two small silver linings, maybe silver-plated linings, have popped up. One relates to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the other to Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Frequently, when there are enough deportees from a single country bunched in a single place in the United States ICE charters a plane to send the aliens home, notably to Central America from Texas, and maybe from California as well. When there are smaller numbers, ICE books seats on scheduled flights of the major airlines.

Now if you book a charter flight for deportees, what do you do with the empty seats when the plane returns to the States? Usually — and here my data basis is slim — I suspect nothing. So these seats are a wasted resource, but that, to some extent, is changing.

ICE has recently announced that some of these seats are being used to bring stranded Americans back from Central America; these are people who cannot easily return because of cutbacks in airline schedules.

That’s both an appropriate use of these seats and a temporary one. Once the airlines resume flights and the virus crisis appears less threatening, use of that resource will no longer be needed.

But the deportee flights will continue long into the future, and a nimble Department of Homeland Security could use those empty seats — and the presumably empty luggage and cargo space — in ways that could help the economies of the Northern Triangle nations, and thus reduce pressures to come to the United States illegally.

A reasonably uncomplicated use of the unused space on the returning charters could be the provision of low-cost or no-cost transport of Central American craft goods, such as woven and pottery products, thus bringing more volume and perhaps higher prices to the country people who make them. Shipping some perishables, again at cut rates, might be possible in the holds of these planes, presuming that temperature controls were in place.

Not only should such arrangements be made, they should be publicized in Central America.

If a way could be found to use the empty seats to bring authorized foreign workers (both H-2As and H-2Bs) to this country so that it would benefit the workers and their-stay-at-home families, this would make these programs more beneficial to the homeland economies. Maybe the money spent on the travel, to be shouldered by the employers, could be used to fund some nation-building in the Northern Triangle.

Some of these suggestions might involve changing the text of the contracts with the charters.

Yet another hidden resource has been produced by the sharp reduction of international travel and that is the time and energy of the inspectors at the air and land ports of entry. While dealing with empty plane seats involves negotiations among ICE, the charter airlines, and other players, the extra person-power created by the reduced traffic at the ports is totally within governmental control.

One obvious move would be to simply cut the budgets for inspections, reduce the hours for many of the inspectors (saving on overtime), and lay off others. Both the agents’ union and the Customs and Border Protection agency would object to such an approach, but the mere suggestion might ease the way to other approaches.

The least complex of these adjustments, perhaps already in play, would be the encouragement of staff to use vacation days voluntarily at a time convenient to the government, and the use of this time for needed staff training.

Deploying the inspectors at land ports to help the Border Patrol staff their operations would be another possibility. Though the inspectors and Border Patrol agents cannot replace each other directly, inspectors could be used to ride alongside agents on patrol and could help staff detention centers, for example.

But what do you do with the down time for the inspectors at the airports? There is no Border Patrol on Long Island that can absorb that otherwise idle inspector at Idlewild (aka: JFK), for example.

A number of years ago, when immigration-management functions were united in the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, there was a process called “remoting” in which not fully utilized inspectors, notably in the middle of the night, were given adjudication chores that did not involve interviews. In those days, the inspectors reported to the assistant commissioner/inspections, who reported to the associate INS commissioner/examinations — the adjudicators reported, through an assistant commissioner/adjudications to the same associate commissioner.

Currently inspectors are in CBP and adjudicators are in USCIS, making such a work transfer more difficult, if not impossible.

Maybe some of the otherwise under-utilized airport inspectors could be assigned to help ICE with its functions. Having some people in DHS working in different parts of the agency — if only temporarily — would be a useful part of their careers, opening their eyes to other parts of migration management, and would help the broader goal of better migration enforcement.

But there has to be creative leadership to cause any of these wasted resources to be used in these manners. It is easier to let staff time (and airplane seats) simply go to waste.

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After brief coronavirus closure, Seattle immigration court reopens to backlash – Crosscut

They say both staff and detainees are at risk of contracting COVID-19 if the courts remain open, including in Seattle and Tacoma.

“It’s fair to say that all judges, whether in a detained or undetained setting, are concerned about their own health and that of their family, the health of attorneys for both sides that come before them, as well as the aliens,” said Judge Brett M. Parchert, an immigration judge in Seattle who was speaking as the local union representative for the National Association of Immigration Judges. 

“We would like for the agency to be more proactive in shutting down the court system to protect everyone’s health involved,” Parchert said in a recent phone interview.

After closing briefly, the Seattle court reopened Thursday, prompting a backlash, including from Washington state representatives. The DOJ’s Executive Office of Immigration Review also reopened the court in New Jersey — another COVID-19 hotspot. Two ICE detainees in New Jersey have tested positive for the virus.

Mimi Tsankov, eastern region vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said immigration judges have experienced COVID-19 symptoms but are awaiting test results. 

The entire court environment, Tsankov argued, is not conducive to health and safety during a pandemic.

“Court staff, private bar attorneys, DHS [Department of Homeland Security] counsel, respondents, contract interpreters, witnesses and others are interfacing with the court while suffering with symptoms and in some cases with COVID-19 positive results,” she said. 

In reaction to the reopening of the immigration courts in Seattle and New Jersey, Washington state lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, and Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, wrote in a letter to the federal government on Thursday: “As you are well aware, Washington State and New Jersey are under statewide orders to shelter in place. Reopening the courts forces people to make an impossible choice between complying with court requirements and public health guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

They noted that the order would require nonprofits and law firms across two severely impacted regions to send people back to work and bring in clients to prepare court filings.

In a statement on Friday about the court’s reopening, Mayor Jenny Durkan said: “This is both a public health violation and a human rights issue. It is reckless and irresponsible for the Trump administration to allow immigration courts to operate despite an active pandemic and multiple states’ orders for residents to stay at home.”

Parchert said the reopening of the immigration court in downtown Seattle took everyone “a little bit by surprise.” Lawyers and clients have complained that the primary way they are finding out about court closures and openings is through Twitter and Facebook posts, forcing everyone to scramble. 

“Most judges are not on Twitter, so we have had to learn, for example, to Google ‘DOJ EOIR’ and ‘Twitter’ to try to obtain information about the status of other courts, as well as an indication if the life or safety of colleagues may have been compromised,” Parchert said.  

The Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Parchert explained the reopening of the immigration court in Seattle is limited, but that staff members had been told on March 17 they would not be returning for at least 14 days.  

The Seattle court is currently set to resume hearings April 13, which many consider worrisome. Parchert said clients travel from all over the state — Yakima, Walla Walla and other places — to attend hearings at the court. Courtrooms are small and crowded, all factors that could make the spreading of COVID-19 likely.

Parchert also pointed out that many immigration judges across the country fall into the at-risk category with regard to COVID-19.

“The natural part of being a judge is that you’re a little older,” said the 52-year-old Parchert, noting lawyers need years of experience before being promoted to the position. 

Although immigration advocates have long been concerned with a backlog of cases —  about 15,000 immigration cases are currently pending in Washington state — Parchert said the first priority should be everyone’s safety, even if the closures make the mountain of cases worse. 

“Judges by their very nature tend to be Type A personalities,” Parchert said. “That does add to the stress,” he said, referring to the backlog of cases. 

“But the stress is secondary to the current pandemic,” he added.

Immigration lawyers say they are unable to adequately prepare for their cases under current circumstances. 

Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Tacoma, said although the courtroom at the ICE detention center there is doing as much as possible remotely, with lawyers calling in or using video, he remains worried about staff and detainees. 

Detainees deemed mentally incompetent, for example, have to show up to court in person. 

The biggest issue, Warden-Hertz said, is the inability to confidentially prepare clients for court. 

In-person attorney visits at the detention center currently happen in an open hallway and behind glass, making it easy for anyone in the same space to overhear conversations. Also, the fact that only one person at a time can be on the phone with the detainee sitting behind the glass makes it impossible to work with language interpreters.

Even if a lawyer calls his client from an office instead, the detainee must use a phone in a large cell, referred to as a pod, where other inmates are able to overhear the specifics of cases, including details such as LGBTQ status, gang violence and other sensitive matters. Phone connections can also be spotty, Warden-Hertz said.  

“Really the only way to ensure that people get a fair shake is to let them out,” Warden-Hertz argued. He said given the current public health emergency some undocumented immigrants might opt to sign off on deportation papers, even with a strong case.

“It feels like an impossible situation,” Warden-Hertz said. “It’s just hard when you see your clients, and they’re so terrified.” 

He said closing the courts has to go hand in hand with releasing people.

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Detainees in US immigration jails living in fear as coronavirus spreads – The Guardian

Recordings obtained by Guardian reveal people in Ice centers in the south concerned they are not being properly cared for

The Trump administration has massively expanded the use of immigration detention facilities, with hardline policies that have driven the detention population to record highs.

The Trump administration has massively expanded the use of immigration detention facilities, with hardline policies that have driven the detention population to record highs.
Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Detainees at immigration detention centers across the American south have alleged heavy-handed crackdowns amid increasing panic and protest over the coronavirus pandemic, according to advocates and recordings of detainees obtained by the Guardian.

A number of detainees have expressed concern they are not being properly cared for in packed detention centers. Former senior immigration officials and attorneys have called for the release of nonviolent detainees. Judges in New Jersey, New York and California have ordered the release of small numbers, based on health concerns.

“People are terrified for their lives and think that they’re going to die there,” said Phoebe Lytle, a law student volunteer who has spoken with detainees at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) facilities in Louisiana. “I don’t think anyone is saying it in a light or flippant way.”

Jaclyn Cole, an outreach paralegal at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said she was called on Tuesday by a Cuban asylum seeker who said officers dressed in riot gear were shooting rubber bullets and using chemical agents on detainees after a dispute with guards.

During the five-minute call to Pine Prairie Ice processing center, Cole said she heard between 10 and 15 shots.

Ice spokesperson Bryan D Cox did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He has previously denied that the privately operated facility possesses rubber bullets, after detainees have reported their use. Cox did confirm to Mother Jones that seven people at Pine Prairie were pepper-sprayed on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, guards at the LaSalle Ice center allegedly sprayed a man with what he called “toxic gas” on Monday after two other detainees cautioned detainees to forgo meals because food could carry Covid-19. The man was hospitalized, said Verónica Fernández, a project coordinator with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.

Cox did not respond to a request for comment on that incident. He did confirm a separate use of force at LaSalle on Wednesday to Buzzfeed News.

Since Covid-19 started spreading through the US, health and immigration experts have expressed concern that Ice is unequipped to deal with the crisis. The US runs the largest immigration detention system in the world and there is a well-documented record of infections ballooning into outbreaks in such facilities. Now, coronavirus has infected some of the agency’s employees and detainees, which experts said was inevitable.

Two detainees in New Jersey Ice facilities and five employees at four facilities in Texas, Colorado and New Jersey have confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Ice. No cases have been publicly announced in southern states.

The Trump administration has massively expanded the use of immigration detention facilities, with hardline policies that have driven the detention population to record highs. States in the deep south have opened more new facilities than anywhere else.

Advocates say immigrants held in Louisiana suspect Covid-19 has reached their facilities as the state becomes a major virus hotspot. At Ice’s South Louisiana center, a woman alleged she saw officers in hazmat suits feeding someone through a slot in a door, Cole said. At LaSalle, Fernández said, a dorm has reportedly been quarantined, and detainees believe two people have the disease.

“They’re not giving people what they need to protect themselves, and that is social distancing,” said Fernández. “That’s not something people can do in detention.”

Ice has said detainees’ “health, welfare and safety … is one of the agency’s highest priorities”.

“Since the onset of reports of Covid-19, Ice epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to Ice Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees,” according to the agency’s website.

Some detainees believe they will not receive fair treatment in government care. In a recorded call from Richwood correctional center in Louisiana, released by the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and shared with the Guardian, one detainee said: “They’re not going to take a facemask from anyone, from any American, to put it on an immigrant. This means we are going to die.”

Advocates say anyone in detention is likely to have a compromised immune system, but some also have pre-existing conditions. Lytle said she spoke to a 61-year-old asthmatic at Jackson Parish correctional center, another facility used by Ice in Louisiana, whom she said was “very, very worried” and called to tell her people in his dorm were refusing meals.

A woman named Denisse, whose husband is at Stewart detention center in Georgia, feared what might happen as new detainees arrived and guards came and went.

“It’s just spreading rapidly, you know?” Denisse said. “And his immune system is already weak.”

Her husband has a pre-existing condition that has become worse since he arrived at the facility in September, she said, adding that he recently underwent a procedure and uses a catheter. She shook with relief when she learned he would be released on Monday. The reason for his release was unclear.

Hilda Jorge Perez, whose husband is at Richwood, said he had heart problems and high blood pressure. She worried that if he got infected, she would not be able to see him.

Perez’s husband was among at least 60 people who staged a hunger strike earlier this week. The protesters were forced to end the strike after officials told them they would be put in Ice’s version of solitary confinement and have phone and television privileges removed, Perez said.

Detainees at Stewart planned a similar strike. They demanded they either be released or deported instead of waiting to be infected, according to recordings of calls provided by a North Carolina advocacy group.

“We’re not going to eat until Ice comes here and gives us answers, and gives us a solution,” one man said.

A spokesperson for Ice accused advocates of circulating rumors about a hunger strike at Stewart, which she said never happened.

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