Scott Emerick, Esq.
Bolour / Carl Immigration Group
Immigration courts across the country have been reopening, including in Los Angeles. They are taking steps to limit physical interaction in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In Los Angeles, EOIR has issued a standing order that effects all master hearings. If the Respondent has an attorney on record, the attorney will receive a phone call several days before the hearing and receive a code to enter for a conference call so that the hearing can be conducted on the day of the hearing. The Respondent does not need to call in or be present on the phone conference. At these hearings the judge speaks with the attorneys for the Respondent and the government to see where the case is and usually to schedule a date for the individual hearing.
The standing order does not require that individual hearings on relief be telephonic but says that those can be done as well. Individual hearings on relief are hearings where the Respondent and any witnesses can testify as to why the Respondent should be granted relief and allowed to stay in the United States. These hearings, generally, take more time and require in depth questioning, testimony, and cross examination. Given the extensive time of these types of hearings, doing them telephonically would be the safer option in preventing a risk of exposure to the coronavirus. However, if a Respondent or attorney feel that they cannot present their case as effectively over a phone call, then they should request that the hearing be done in person.
The standing order discussed above is specifically for the Los Angeles – Olive Street Immigration Court. Many other immigration courts around the country have adopted similar measures, but not all. For instance, the Dallas Immigration Court does not have automatic telephonic hearings for all immigration judges – depending on the judge, attorneys may be required to file a motion for a telephonic hearing ahead of time.
Another problem presented during this time of COVID 19 and social distancing in immigration court is for Respondents who do not have an attorney. In Los Angeles, most Respondents who do not have an attorney are being rescheduled for court hearings next year, presumably when it is safe for people to appear in person again. This could present a number of challenges for Respondents. If they move and fail to update their address with the court, they could miss the reschedule notice and the notice for the new date and time. If their case is time sensitive, it could be pushed off for years before a judge can make a ruling on the case, potentially making them ineligible for the relief requested. Again, this could be different at other immigration courts as each location has its own rules on conducting hearings during the pandemic.
Given the complicated and frequent changes in procedures in immigration courts, it is more important than ever to have attorney representation in immigration court. Respondents who are not represented should consult with an attorney to find out the local rules on the pandemic and if they are at risk of losing relief due to time delays.