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Immigration Advocates Seek Emergency Order to Protect Lives and Rights Amid Global Pandemic

Legal Challenge Targets Reckless Operation of Immigration Courts Despite Current Public Health Crisis

WASHINGTON – The Southern Poverty Law Center, Innovation Law Lab, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. and Santa Fe Dreamers Project, with the pro bono assistance of Perkins Coie law firm, have filed for an emergency order challenging the reckless operation of the immigration courts despite the current public health crisis. 
If granted, the federal court’s emergency order would mandate that immigration courts around the country adopt policies and procedures that protect public health and preserve immigrants’ rights. 
“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 at Innovation Law Lab. 
In December, organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging the weaponization of the nation’s immigration court system to serve the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. Those organizations are now going before the court to ask that a temporary restraining order be issued requiring immigration courts to take appropriate measures to protect the health of immigrants, attorneys, court staff and the public without jeopardizing the rights of people in removal proceedings. The plaintiffs are asking today that the immigration courts extend deadlines, adopt appropriate safety measures, and ensure that immigrants’ cases are not prejudiced by court policies during the current national emergency.
“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 with the Southern Poverty Law Center’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.”
“Asylum seekers are being put in the impossible position of deciding between their health and their right to seek protection in this country,” said Dennise Moreno, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. “We, as advocates, are calling on immigration courts to keep the public safe and stop issuing deportation orders when asylum seekers and advocates make the responsible decision to stay home.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in 2019, alleges pervasive dysfunction and bias within the immigration court system, including:

  • the growth of “asylum-free zones,” where virtually no asylum claims have been granted for the past several years;
  • a nationwide backlog of pending immigration cases, which has now surpassed 1 million;
  • an Enforcement Metrics Policy, implemented last year, which gives judges a personal financial stake in every case they decide and pushes them to deny more cases more quickly; and
  • the creation of a “family unit” court docket, which stigmatizes the cases of recently arrived families and rushes their court dates, often giving families inadequate time to find an attorney and prepare for their hearings. 

Today’s filing can be found HERE.
Last June, Law Lab and the SPLC released a report, based on over two years of research and focus group interviews with attorneys and former immigration judges from around the country, examining the failure of the immigration court system to fulfill the constitutional and statutory promise of fair and impartial case-by-case review. The report can be found here: The Attorney General’s Judges:  How the U.S. Immigration Courts Became a Deportation Tool.