Before the pandemic, it was fairly common to see a waiting room at Federal Plaza filled with children who had come to see an immigration judge. Their cases would be scheduled on the same days. Ranging from toddler to teenagers, they’d come with adults from their foster care agencies, carrying backpacks loaded with toys and books, and play on the floor or doze off in their chairs.
Although the Department of Justice closed many immigration courts last week, after judges and lawyers expressed alarm over spreading and contracting COVID-19, young immigrants were still expected to show up in person for hearings this week. That’s because they’re technically considered detainees in government custody, and the courts are still seeing cases involving immigrants in detention.
But that changed Monday morning, when agencies that care for the kids got word the New York immigration court would hold their hearings by video.
Jennifer Nagda, policy director with the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, was relieved. But she was puzzled about why the court didn’t simply postpone all cases involving the children except for those expecting final decisions about whether they could stay in the U.S.
“These are scheduling hearings,” she said. “There is nothing emergency or urgent about these hearings.”
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the immigration courts, did not reply to numerous requests for an explanation.
The children in these court hearings are known as unaccompanied alien children, because they came to the U.S. without their parents or were separated from them at the border. There are 3,600 unaccompanied minors staying in shelters or with foster families under contract with the U.S. government, according to The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Hundreds are in the New York City region, including many who were separated from parents by the Trump Administration’s policies at the southern border.
Advocates from the Young Center are not immigration lawyers. Instead, they’re appointed to give recommendations to immigration judges about what decisions will be in the best interest of each young migrant. Some kids seek court permission to go back to their home countries while others are pursuing asylum. Nagda says her organization is working with children around the country, and there was no consistent policy as of Monday about which courts were seeing the kids in person versus by video.
Foster care agencies are used to arranging video calls for children to communicate with relatives. But going to court by video is a different challenge, said Nagda.
“It’s really difficult for children to understand what’s actually going on,” she explained. “And if they can’t understand what’s going on because they’re not sure if it’s real or something that’s taking place on a TV screen, it’s nearly impossible to say that it’s a fair hearing.”
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Richard Crompton, a spokesman for Cayuga Centers, said the agency has 73 unaccompanied minors in its care and has video conferencing facilities at its offices which can be used if the foster homes don’t have the technology. He said none of the kids has tested positive for the virus, and that staff with support from the medical team are monitoring them closely, following distance guidelines, and the cleaning routine has been stepped up.
“We continue to provide all services for our youth,” he said. “We have transitioned to video conferencing, twice a day health check for youth. When allowed to come to site for services, we only allow a maximum of 4 youth in a classroom.”
But that doesn’t mean video court is easy, said Mary Jane Dessables, director of information, research, and accountability for the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies. For one thing, she noted, most of the unaccompanied minors don’t speak English.
“The necessity of having a translator adds another obstacle to getting it done effectively,” she explained. But at the same time, she said the concern for safety warranted the need to switch to remote immigration court hearings.
And on the topic of safety, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said there have not been any confirmed COVID-19 disease cases among children in its provider facilities. “If a child is recommended for testing by the health care provider or public health department, the child will receive testing,” it stated. Currently 12 children in the care-provider network have been tested, it said, with five testing negative and seven tests pending.
The agency also said three staff members at two agencies in New York have tested positive for COVID-19. Published reports have identified them as Abbott House and Mercy First on Long Island, but ORR did not confirm. In addition, the agency said one foster parent in Washington State has tested positive.
ORR has stopped placing unaccompanied minors in California, New York and Washington, which are hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, “out of an abundance of caution.” It’s also prioritizing local placements for all new cases to limit air travel when possible.