On Tuesday, the Boston immigration court will resume what are known as "master calendar hearings." Even though the court has remained open throughout the pandemic, these proceedings, which bring large crowds of people to court, have been on hold — until now.
Several Boston-area immigration attorneys say that it's unsafe to restart master calendar hearings in-person. They say it remains unclear whether their clients will be allowed to appear for these hearings over the phone and if so, what requirements must be met to do so.
Cambridge-based immigration attorney Susan Church says the confusion stems from a failure in communication on the part of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the country's immigration courts.
"In the past these hearings were 100 to 150 people in crowded hallways," she said. "We don't know yet what it's going to look like because we're not really getting any guidance from the court at all.
EOIR did not respond to WBUR’s request for comment.
The New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) sent a letter on Friday to EOIR outlining their concerns. In it, the association asks the federal government for clarification on whether in-person appearances for master calendar hearings will be waived during the pandemic and noting that the agency has not specified requirements for telephonic appearances.
In a statement, Eliana Nader, the chair of AILA New England, said there is no safe way to conduct master calendar hearings in-person. In the absence of official communication, she said attorneys are sharing anecdotal experiences with one another that speak to the risks of bringing these hearings back into the courthouse.
"Although we have received no formal guidance, we have heard reports that some Boston EOIR judges are expecting attorneys to appear telephonically from their offices, with their clients also present in the attorneys’ office," Nader said.
"The clerks are calling attorneys individually and saying, 'You have a hearing on this date. Please have your client with you in your office.' It's being presented as though we don't have a choice and that's troubling," Nader said. "Many of our members are understandably unwilling or unable to share close quarters with their clients at this time. Many feel unsafe doing so."
The Boston immigration court has temporarily closed a number of times since the onset of the pandemic. As recently as last Wednesday, EOIR announced on Twitter that the court would be closed Thursday, though they cited no reason for the closure.
In June, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to EOIR expressing her concern over the increasing caseload at Boston's immigration court, and asking the agency for more transparency in its decision making process during the pandemic.