There is no question that the Coronavirus pandemic, which from here on out I’m calling by its technical name, Covid-19, has disrupted normal operations of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This is the benefits bureau of DHS. All in-person appointments have been canceled “through at least April 1, 2020.” Functions that have been canceled include green card interviews, naturalization interviews, asylum interviews and the taking of biometrics (digital fingerprints) at “Application Support Centers” (ASCs).
Frankly, I expect interview cancellations in New Jersey if not nationwide to continue through April into the unforeseeable future, depending on how bad the situation gets. There have been many reports of USCIS personnel and customers being exposed to Covid-19 in federal buildings, and the nature of these interviews is not only in-person but also involves waiting in very crowded waiting rooms for one’s appointment to be called. None of this is consistent with “social distancing” guidance and prohibitions on large gatherings of people.
There have been periods during March where the main federal building at 970 Broad Street in Newark, New Jersey, was completely closed due to contamination concerns. Employees were not even in the building, much less interviewees.
What will happen in the future remains to be seen.
There is a good case to be made that it is simply too dangerous to enter a federal building without assurances by the government that it is safe. Those, as discussed below, are hard to come by.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is the internal enforcement bureau of DHS. There have been some public statements that ICE would hold off on arresting foreign citizens unlawfully in the United States – because there is no place to detain them due to overcrowded detention facilities.
But don’t let this fool you. Arrests regularly happen still. People arrested with final orders of removal, or who have been put into proceedings (immigration court), normally have reporting requirements to the ICE local Enforcement and Removal Office (ERO). However, these in-person appointments have been canceled. Phone-in requirements are substituted except for certain vital appointments like walk-ins to post bond for detained foreign citizens who are eligible to be released from detention centers. However, just today, I learned that bond applications are no longer being accepted at Newark.
Generally speaking, ICE is trying to conduct business by telephone and email. The situation is very fluid.
There have been many voices demanding the closure of the detention centers maintained by ICE or ICE contractors. These would include local county correctional facilities such as the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark (ECCF) and the Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC) run by a private jailer, “Core Civic” at 625 Evans St. in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Both these facilities and others nationwide have had employees and detainees catch Covid-19 while in the facilities.
In my opinion, the facilities are downright dangerous to enter, and there are severe limitations and restrictions on lawyer entry. For example, lawyers will be excluded from Elizabeth unless they bring their own PPE (personal protection equipment). To me, the very idea that an attorney, or anyone, would have to enter a facility with PPE to carry on business is outrageous because there is no guarantee that the facility is safe.
If the federal government cannot guarantee that a building it operates is safe to enter the building should not be open for business.
ICE is finally bowing to some of the pressure, and today announced a program of review of detainees at Elizabeth and the selected release of some who have special health problems or risks and are otherwise eligible to be released. Today I also learned that there is a federal court order out of New York City directing that ICE release certain detainees at ECCF who are being held there for detained proceedings in New York.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP). I really can’t say much about CBP because I have little exposure to them these days. I do know that the federal government issued a (potentially illegal) ban on all foreign citizens seeking to enter the United States to claim asylum due to Covid-19 concerns, and I believe that is being carried out. Frankly, it’s hard to argue with although I consider this an instance where the pandemic is being used as an excuse to violate asylum law, in line with other illegal policies that long predate the arrival of the pandemic.
I will post again on this subject once we get guidance on whether USCIS interviews scheduled in April, and if other major developments are announced.