Concerns over exposure to COVID-19 are increasing among Boston's immigration attorneys after one of the courtrooms in Boston abruptly closed earlier this week.
Susan Roses, an immigration attorney based in Lynn, was in Boston's immigration court Wednesday when she says immigration Judge Jennifer Mulcahy took it upon herself to close her courtroom.
"I was walking towards the waiting room and one of the judges popped out of the courtroom and loudly announced, 'My courtroom is now closed because yesterday there was someone in the courtroom who is presumed positive [for COVID-19].' "
Court hearings for non-detained immigrants have been suspended nationwide, but hearings for people in detention are proceeding with guidance from the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) — the governing body of the nation's immigration courts.
The union of national immigration judges wants the complete closure of courts nationwide. The EOIR has not yet responded to an inquiry from WBUR.
According to Roses, there were approximately 17 people in the courtroom she was in on Wednesday. Governor Charlie Baker has banned all gatherings of more than 25 people. Roses says the immigration judge she was before cleaned his desk and phone with a Clorox wipe before proceeding with cases.
Roses also raises concerns about people being transported from detention facilities into courtrooms — a move she questions considering the court's longtime practice of utilizing teleconferencing for detainee hearings.
"They [five detained individuals present for their hearings] were seated right beside one another, right in the back row and all kind of right up against each other," Roses says. "The attorneys were trying to avoid each other, doing social distancing as much as we possibly could."
Many immigration advocates, and politicians, are calling for the release of all immigrant detainees who do not have criminal records and do not pose a threat to public safety to be released to avoid possible outbreaks among jailed populations.
Mario Paredes is a staff attorney working jointly with Prisoners' Legal Services and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. He says the groups are hearing concerns from detained immigrants across New England.
"We are hearing a lot of worry from those who are still in detention that there hasn't been enough guidance provided to them," Paredes says. "Also, in certain places we've heard that there's not enough soap being provided to immigrants who are detained and newly detained immigrants who are coming into the system."
Paredes says offering more release options to detained individuals during the COVID-19 crisis would reduce the burdens on attorneys and courts while also reducing the chance of exposure to the highly contagious virus.