The pandemic is impacting all aspects of immigrants’ lives, especially those whose future will be decided by a courts’ decision whether or not to remove them. Since March 2020 our clients have had their deportation hearings be canceled or postponed (for two or more years at a time) because the courts here have been closed. In other parts of the country, some courts reopened earlier this year and abruptly shut down again after court personnel and attorneys became ill or died. Recently – on October 13, 2020, the Seattle Immigration Court reopened for in-person hearings. Other courts across the country remain closed, ten months into the pandemic.
It seems dangerous to reopen and risk person to person exposure for hours at a time in a closed room without adequate ventilation. The Seattle Immigration Court has not announced any COVID safety protocol. Attorneys and immigrants have no assurance that the courtrooms, clerk’s offices, or waiting rooms have adequate protections.
Can video technology help? For years Immigration courts all over the country have used video technology for judges and for government counsel to appear. Requests for immigrants and their attorneys to do the same have been denied thus far, although telephonic appearance requests are possible. However, it’s far from ideal to try to present a case describing an immigrant’s whole life, oftentimes using interpreters, over the phone. But it’s also not worth dying for the right to have in-person hearings during a pandemic.
Or should we just wait? Our clients have received continuances of up to two years due to the closure. These suddenly postponed cases will be added to the incredible backlog in the immigration courts — more than one million cases. We hope to be ready to go in two more years. We will continue to help clients prepare for their hearings, now and in two years Will the pandemic be over then? We hope so.
 Attorneys from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) are filing lawsuits in New Jersey and soon in Seattle to demand the immigration courts make video access available to immigrants and their attorneys.