Legal Services NYC sues immigration courts for not postponing deadlines during deadly pandemic
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order on March 20, 13 days after he declared a state of disaster emergency for the entire state, the court system came grinding to a halt. Only the criminal and family courts stayed open for arraignments and other emergencies.
Those orders didn’t extend to the immigration courts located within New York City, which are run by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and offered courts no nationwide guidance about closing or re-opening after a reported COVID-19 case. The courts are currently closed for cases involving non-detained immigrants, but filing deadlines often remain in effect.
On Wednesday, Legal Services NYC filed a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against the EOIR for “recklessly endangering the lives of immigrants, attorneys and the public by continuing to require them to meet strict filing deadlines in non-detained immigration cases.”
The suit is seeking a court order that prohibits EOIR from enforcing filing deadlines, specifically in cases involving non-detained New York City Immigrant Court cases, for at least 45 days until after New York’s stay-at-home order is lifted.
“I’m scared of the Coronavirus,” said Sonia Monir, a Bangladeshi immigrant and plaintiff in a case. “I have high blood pressure and diabetes, which makes me more susceptible. I don’t want to take the subway or go to court because I could get the virus. I’m thinking about my safety and my daughter’s safety.”
The lawsuit claims that the courts have engaged in a pattern of behavior that shows no concern for the people who appear before them, have haphazardly announced closings and reopenings, and have maintained filing deadlines or have poorly communicated guidance throughout the pandemic.
As an example, the lawsuit explained that on March 24, the EOIR Tweeted that while the NYC immigration courts were closed, filings should be sent to a court in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Later that day, the EOIR then Tweeted that the Elizabeth, New Jersey court was closed due to a person in the court testing positive for the coronavirus.
That evening, the EOIR then allegedly announced that one of the NYC courts would be open the next day for filing purposes. Even later on the same day, the court announced on Twitter that any filings due during their closure had to be filed by March 30.
“Requiring vulnerable immigrants and their lawyers to risk their lives to meet arbitrary filing deadlines during a global health crisis is unconscionable,” said Rex Chen, director of immigration at Legal Services NYC. “…We asked the NYC Immigration Courts multiple times to postpone these filing deadlines, but they ignored our requests. We are left with no choice but to file a federal lawsuit to get an injunction to prohibit these senseless filing deadlines so we can protect the health and safety of immigrant New Yorkers and our staff.”
The legal aid groups officially requested six times that the NYC Immigration Courts postpone filing deadlines in non-detained cases, and each of the three courts in the city received two motions requesting standing orders that would postpone deadlines. The EOIR has allegedly not responded or acted on the six motions.
According to the lawsuit, immigration judges have faced strict quotas since 2018 that they must complete cases within a year of filing and risk poor reviews if they complete fewer than 700 cases in a year. The suit also claims that at least 25 percent of immigration judges are considered on probation and can be fired without cause if they fail to meet these quotas.
“Although litigants and their lawyers can file their submissions by mail, which EOIR has encouraged, the vast majority of litigants and lawyers who are working from home do not have the supplies they need to produce and mail documents to the courts,” the lawsuit said. “Therefore, they are compelled to leave their homes to purchase those supplies or to go to their offices, despite the lockdown, thus increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19 or passing it on. Further, meeting filing deadlines requires some lawyers and litigants to travel to meet with each other, thus risking exposure to COVID-19.”
On April 21, the EOIR postponed non-detained hearings through May 15. It did not reschedule detained hearings and only closed courts, even temporarily, after positive cases of COVID-19.
“Multiple attorneys I know have contracted COVID-19 due to Immigration Court appearances,” said Isabel Heine, a senior staff attorney in the immigration unit at Legal Services NYC. “Meanwhile, our low-income clients, who are facing higher rates of death, homelessness, and food insecurity, are being forced to focus on their immigration cases during a global pandemic because of EOIR’s refusal to postpone these filing deadlines. Enough is enough.”
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