(CMC) – New York Attorney General Letitia James has called on United States Attorney General William Barr, as well as members of New York’s immigration courts, to stop the spread of COVID-19 by immediately halting in-person immigration hearings for Caribbean and other nationals.
James wants Barr and the immigration courts to move instead to telephonic hearings and electronic filings.
In a letter to Barr and immigration judges and court administrators across New York state, James cites the need for protecting practitioners and staff at the state’s immigration courts after members of several organisations that provide free legal representation to indigent non-citizens, such as Caribbean nationals, have reported COVID symptoms or have been exposed to infected persons.
“During this national public-health emergency, it is incumbent upon us all to mitigate the spread of this novel virus,” said James in her letter.
“Court administrations at the state and federal level have instituted protocols that allow court business to continue but also safeguard the public health, including closing non-essential parts of the court and adjourning new trials.”
A similar approach was appropriate and warranted in immigration courts, James added.
The New York attorney general said that numerous organisations –including the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, and the ECBA (Erie County Bar Association) Volunteer Lawyers Project – have reported the risks posed to all in the community by continuing to hold in-person court hearings.
While the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the US Department of Justice has taken some steps to reduce hearings and court traffic for non-detained cases, James said that current policies still require extensive in-person interaction in cases involving detained individuals, “further threatening the health and safety of all court personnel, legal practitioners and staff, defendants, and witnesses who must show up in-person”.
In her letter, James asked for the courts to – at a minimum – adopt the proposals put forth by NYIFUP providers at all immigration courts in New York state, including adjourning master calendar hearings, presumptively permitting telephonic appearances for bond and individual hearings, and presumptively permitting extensions and continuance requests.
James also requested that the courts institute a means for practitioners to submit motions electronically instead of in-person at the court or through the postal mail, “which causes delays and unnecessarily jeopardises the health of those involved”.
Separately, in an effort to support New Yorkers in the fight against the coronavirus, James announced that her Office of the Attorney General would temporarily halt the collection of medical and student debt owed to the state of New York and referred to the OAG for collection for at least a 30-day period between March 16, 2020, through April 15, 2020.
James said this was in response to growing financial impairments resulting from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Countless New Yorkers have been impacted – directly or indirectly – by the spread of COVID-19, forcing them to forgo income and business,” she said.