(Reuters) - For Camille Mackler, the director of immigration legal policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, Tuesday was the worst day so far.
On Monday night, the Justice Department announced that New York City’s courthouse handling cases involving detained immigrants would be shut down because a staffer had tested positive for coronavirus. DOJ told lawyers to file urgent documents in immigration court in Elizabeth, New Jersey, instead. Then the Elizabeth courthouse was shut down. Then U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement announced that a migrant in a detention center in New Jersey had tested positive for COVID-19. The crowning blow came on Tuesday night: The Justice Department issued a tweet informing immigration lawyers that two previously-closed New York City courthouses handling cases for non-detained immigrants would be reopening the next day – and that all of the filings to those courthouses, for which deadlines had been pushed to April, were instead due on Wednesday.
DOJ subsequently deleted the tweet but Mackler posted a screenshot in her Twitter feed, where she responded, “How are people supposed to get to court when we can’t leave our homes? How are clients supposed to help prepare their cases? How can people w/no legal help hope to meet these requirements?”
That pretty much sums up what it’s like to be an immigration lawyer in New York City in the midst of a pandemic. It’s hard enough, Mackler told me Wednesday, to represent clients who are “marginalized and demonized.” Trying to persuade the government to cancel mandatory check-ins at ICE offices, to release detainees before detention centers become viral hotbeds and to postpone deportation hearings for detained immigrants – in addition to trying to figure out where to file papers and how to prepare cases when you can’t meet with clients – is flat out demoralizing, Mackler said.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. DOJ previously told Reuters that very few detainees met the criteria for COVID-19 tests.
“It’s been really magnified,” she told me. “People were breaking down on our conference call. They’re not panicking. They’re strong on behalf of their clients. But the toll is obvious.”
Immigration lawyers, she said, tried to keep their offices open longer than many New York businesses because the government requires some filings and communications to be conducted by regular mail, not electronically. But by mid-March, when New York City announced that it was closing down public schools, even the holdouts began to close shop. “It’s borderline impossible to meet with clients,” Mackler said, adding that if clients are in detention centers, lawyers must provide their own face masks and other protective gear.
The work has been unrelenting, she said. Clients are more worried than ever about missing court dates or required check-ins. And the government has so far resisted calls by immigrant advocates to extend filing deadlines in deportation and asylum cases, as DOJ did after Hurricane Katrina. The circumstances have become so challenging, Mackler said, that her colleagues have started to worry about their ethical duties.
“How are you supposed to develop a proper legal theory of a case and put together your best possible filing in support of your client?” she said. “That aspect … has made a lot of people very uncomfortable. They feel like ethically, they’re not meeting their obligations, their duty of care.”
Meanwhile, she and her husband are trying to maintain a semblance of structure for their 6-year-old daughter. Mackler said she started crying when her daughter had her first video meeting with one of her teachers. “All of these kids, these 6-year-olds in first grade, were trying to shout through the computer to their teacher, how much they miss her, how weird this is and how difficult this is,” she said. “There’s that added, ‘Oh my God, what is my kid’s life like right now?’”
Eventually, Mackler said, the Justice Department is going to have to make accommodations – not for the sake of migrants but for the sake of immigration judges, staffers and ICE agents, who’ve already begun to be hit by the virus. If COVID-19 spreads among migrants in detention centers, government employees will be exposed unless DOJ suspends hearings.
“It’s going to go into the courts, it’s going to go into the ICE offices,” Mackler said. “The virus doesn’t care what your immigration status is.”