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SPLC, partners seek temporary restraining order to prevent immigration courts from becoming public health hazard

The SPLC and its partners will appear before a federal court today to seek a temporary restraining order mandating that immigration courts take appropriate measures to protect immigrants, attorneys, court staff and the public from COVID-19 without endangering the rights of people in removal proceedings.

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic, but the immigration court system is continuing to operate as if it’s business as usual,” said Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “The government has turned the court system into a public health hazard. It is hard not to see this as part of their ongoing efforts to rig the system against asylum seekers and other immigrants who just want a full and fair opportunity to present their claims.”

The emergency motion is part of a broader lawsuit filed in December 2019 by the SPLC, Innovation Law LabLas Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, with pro bono assistance from the Perkins Coie law firm.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, the suit challenges the weaponization of the immigration court system to serve the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. It contends that asylum seekers and other immigrants have long been denied a full and fair opportunity to present their claims due to pervasive dysfunction and bias within the immigration court system, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.     

The suit alleges that the government has used its authority to perpetuate vast asylum-free zones in many parts of the country, creating an impenetrable backlog of more than 1 million cases. In addition, the plaintiffs challenge the government’s performance metrics policy, which gives judges a personal financial stake in every case they decide and pushes them to deny more cases more quickly, in addition to the “family unit” directive, which stigmatizes cases of recently arrived families.

As COVID-19 spreads, the situation is only getting worse. Immigration courts are refusing to implement any policies that safeguard public health and preserve immigrants’ rights, thereby creating an unbearable dilemma for asylum seekers and their attorneys.   

“The immigration court’s refusal to adopt policies that protect the health of respondents, lawyers, judges and immigration court staff during the current pandemic forces immigrant families and their lawyers to make an impossible decision: endanger public health or risk being deported,” said Nadia Dahab, senior litigation attorney for Innovation Law Lab.

Plaintiffs have asked the immigration courts to extend deadlines, adopt appropriate safety measures, and ensure that cases are not adversely affected by court policies during the current national emergency.

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