New York Attorney General Letitia James today called on U.S. Attorney General William Barr, as well as members of New York’s immigration courts to take action and stop the further spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) by immediately halting in-person immigration hearings and instead moving to telephonic hearings and electronic filings. In a letter to Attorney General Barr and immigration judges and court administrators across New York State, Attorney General James cites the need for protecting practitioners and staff at the state’s immigration courts after members of a number of organizations that provide free legal representation to indigent non-citizens at these courts have reported COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to an individual with COVID-19.
“During this national public health emergency, it is incumbent upon us all to mitigate the spread of this novel virus,” said Attorney General 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 is appropriate and warranted in immigration courts.”
Numerous organizations — including the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), 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 U.S. Department of Justice has taken some steps to reduce hearings and court traffic for non-detained cases, 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 today, Attorney General James asks 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. Attorney General 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 cause delays and unnecessarily jeopardizes the health of those involved.
Separately, in an effort to support New Yorkers in the fight against the coronavirus, Attorney General James announced that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) will 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, in response to growing financial impairments resulting from the spread of the coronavirus. Countless New Yorkers have been impacted — directly or indirectly — by the spread of COVID-19, forcing them to forgo income and business. After this 30-day period, the OAG will reassess the needs of state residents for a possible extension. Additionally, the OAG will accept applications for suspension of all other types of debt owed to the State of New York and referred to the OAG for collection.