MPP courtrooms in 'chaos' amid coronavirus concerns
BROWNSVILLE – Migrants under the Migrant Protection Protocol in Matamoros were turned back inexplicably Monday when they attempted to attend their court hearings in Brownsville. Inside those courtrooms, the atmosphere is described as “chaotic” by the National Association of Immigration Judges who are requesting all hearings are postponed amid COVID-19 concerns.
A group of about 10 MPP migrants who showed up to the Gateway International Bridge were turned back by Customs and Border Protection, according to one of the migrant's attorney, Charlene D'Cruz. She said they were sent back to Mexico and referred to their national immigration office, INM.
"When the folks went back to INM, she was told that, 'oh, we can't give you a permiso, [permit], because we haven't heard from CBP. That CBP will send us a list with your names, and at that point, we will give you the permits to stay in Mexico. Of course, without those permits, they are not documented in Mexico," D’Cruz said.
Late Monday, INM granted the MPP migrants an extension to stay in the country for two more days. That's when they were asked by the Department of Justice Executive Office of Immigration Review, EOIR, to return to the bridge for the date of their new hearing. In a statement provided by the EOIR, they stated:
"Due to circumstances resulting from COVID-19, all Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) master calendar and merit hearings presently scheduled through April 22 will be rescheduled. Neither the MPP program nor any hearings will be cancelled."
"Any individual with an MPP hearing date through April 22 should present themselves at their designated port of entry on their previously scheduled date to receive a tear sheet and hearing notice containing their new hearing dates. DHS and EOIR are deeply committed to ensuring that individuals ‘have their day in court’ while also ensuring the health and safety of aliens, our frontline officers, immigration court professionals, and our citizens."
The courtrooms have largely been conducting business as usual, according to the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Hon. Ashley Tabaddor. "It's absolute chaos, there's no other word other than absolute chaos," she said.
In a time when the White House and numerous national and world health organizations are recommending people keep their distance, migrants, judges, and staff are still showing up to courthouses daily.
"People feel that they're lives are not being equally protected," said Tabaddor.
In response to the COVID-19 concerns, the EOIR halted all non-detained dockets – the cases of those who are not in detention. Courtrooms were also closed in places like New York, Washington, and California. On Monday, they had to close the New York - Varick Immigration Court after a person inside tested positive for the coronavirus. NAIJ members the agency is not going far enough in taking proactive measures to protect people who go to court.
"The agency has failed to provide any personal protective gear. They are not providing adequate hand sanitizers. Many people are having to go buy their own wipes," said Tabaddor. "They are not really honoring the social distancing requirements. There are people who are being forced to work, such as support staff basically shoulder to shoulder, cubicle to cubicle."
There is particular concern with MPP migrants who are staying in Mexico, a country who is set to unveil their preparation plans against COVID-19 on Tuesday. Tamaulipas confirmed its fifth positive case on Monday. Concerned judges are taking action under their own authority. Some are calling in sick.
"And others who have reset cases, and said they're not going to hold hearings during this time. Others who have instituted specific rules for limiting the number of people in the courtroom," explained Tabaddor. Their authority only goes so far, leaving waiting areas, security check lines, and hallways vulnerable to close interactions.
The NAIJ is proposing holding courts using telecommunication. Not all courts are equipped for it, but it is a decision that would require EOIR approval, one they've been reticent to make. Monday's decision to reschedule MPP hearings may be a step in the direction that falls in line with national social distancing recommendations.
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