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UPDATE: The Executive Office of Immigration Review, the governing body of the nation’s immigration courts, announced in a tweet late Tuesday night that all immigration hearings for non-detained individuals are postponed as of March 18. The Boston immigration court remains open for hearings of those people still in ICE custody.
Read this story in Spanish here.
Boston's immigration court is set to immediately suspend master calendar hearings — days during which hundreds of people file in and out of crowded court rooms for pre-trial appearances before an immigration judge. The move was made in direct response to the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
This postponement, announced in an email late Friday reviewed by WBUR, applies only to non-detained individuals.
Master calendar hearings are a crucial step in the process of adjusting one's U.S. immigration status, with appointments scheduled many months — if not years — into the future in Boston's immigration court. The court is already home to one of the largest backlogs of cases in the country. Generally, individuals who do not show up for their scheduled master calendar hearings will be placed into removal proceedings and become deportable.
According to the email sent late Friday from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the governing body of the nation's immigration courts, the Boston immigration court will, however, remain open for individual hearings.
"Respondents or their representatives, as applicable, who are affected will receive notice of their new hearing date at least 10 days before the new date," an EOIR spokesperson wrote in the email.
Kerry Doyle, a Boston-based immigration attorney, said canceling the master calendar hearings is the right thing to do from a public health point of view but worries about the impact the suspension will have on the existing years-long case backlog in Boston.
"The clerks are overwhelmed, and the judges are under immense pressure to push and finish cases," Doyle said. "It’s already complete chaos, and don’t forget no one has recovered yet from the government shutdown last year."
"The system will now completely implode."
Some attorneys told WBUR they feel federal immigration officials have not gone far enough by suspending these hearings in only a handful of immigration courts across the country.
Mahsa Khanbabai, an immigration attorney based in North Easton and head of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said postponing the large-scale hearings is a positive step. But she, too, worried the move was not enough to protect the health of immigrants and called for federal immigration officials to temporarily suspend all interviews for adjustments of immigration status, including green card interviews.
"It's painful for me to say this because individuals have been waiting years to finally have their green card and naturalization applications adjudicated," Khanbabai said.
"But, because people are desperate to legalize or naturalize, that desperation leads people to do things they wouldn't normally do, like show up to an immigration office even if they're at risk of making others ill."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency in charge of processing green card and citizenship applications, has not suspended interviews or individual appointments in its Boston field office. However, the agency's website does instruct people to skip appointments if they're feeling ill.
"If you become ill for any reason, regardless of whether you were exposed to COVID-19, please do not come to appointments with any USCIS office," the site reads. "We will help you reschedule your appointment without penalty when you are healthy."
In addition to Boston, the immigration courts in Los Angeles (North Los Angeles; Olive; Van Nuys), Newark, New York City (Broadway; Federal Plaza; Varick), Sacramento and San Francisco also suspended master calendar hearings but remain open for individual hearings.
"The agency continues to evaluate the dynamic situation nationwide and will make decisions for each location as more information becomes available," the EOIR email stated, adding that the decision, effective immediately, is expected to last through at least April 10.
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