Immigration Procedures in a Public Health Emergency
A look back at how a D.C. immigration lawyer navigated early challenges of the COVID-19 pandemicBy Andrew Brandt | Last updated on December 19, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Sarah Pitney
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- What Kinds of Immigration Cases Does Your Firm Handle?
- What Effect Did the President’s Order Have on Your Clients?
- What Changes Did the Firm Make in Response to COVID-19?
- What About Immigration Court Closures?
- What Could Clients Expect if Their Case Was Canceled?
- Any Current Advice for Someone Looking for an Immigration Attorney?
On April 22, 2020, the Trump administration released a proclamation suspending, for 60 days, the issuance of certain visas. On week later, on April 29, 2020, a federal judge in Oregon refused to suspend the order.
We spoke with Sarah Pitney, an immigration attorney at Benach Collopy in Washington, D.C., on April 22 about how the coronavirus pandemic—and the Trump administration’s order—affected clients.
What Kinds of Immigration Cases Does Your Firm Handle?
Our firm largely tends to focus on family-based deportation defense and asylum. If we wanted to sum it up, I would generally tell you everything but business cases. We do a handful of those, but they’re definitely not central to the practice.
What Effect Did the President’s Order Have on Your Clients?
The short answer is: Panic. I’ve gotten probably ten to fifteen emails from clients trying to figure out if this is going to affect their case and what this means for them. The difficulty is that we have no actual verifiable information, so we’re just taking blind guesses. I’ve been telling people that I will not know for sure how this is going to affect their case until the order is actually published. At the end of the day, I can’t even try to give good legal advice until I know what it’s going to be.
What Changes Did the Firm Make in Response to COVID-19?
We did a little bit of adapting [for social distancing in accordance with the CDC’s guidance]; all our attorneys, paralegals, our office manager—everybody is working from home. We’ve got calls forwarded to the office manager at home, so that she can still be answering questions and setting up consultations.
But we’re doing everything virtual now: all phone or Zoom. We do have one person who goes to the office once daily to check the mail and mail things out, because unfortunately, most of the things we do still can’t be filed electronically.
But we keep time spent in the office to a minimum, and whenever the person who goes in for the day leaves, they wipe everything down. Otherwise, cases are proceeding. I’ve had five or six consultations this week. It involves a bit of adaptation but, at least in immigration world, everything is still business as usual.
What About Immigration Court Closures?
Right now, the policy with all immigration courts is that non-detained court hearings, both preliminary and final merits hearings, are canceled through May 15, 2020. For detained cases, most courts allow telephonic appearances by both parties.
There are a few that are still requiring people to go in person—a handful of U.S. immigration judges who don’t seem to think this is as big of a deal as this is. We don’t have any detained clients right now, but normally, we have at least five or six.
What Could Clients Expect if Their Case Was Canceled?
Allegedly, the immigration courts [under the Department of Justice (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)] are setting new dates for hearings as they cancel them, but I haven’t gotten any new hearing notices yet, and their automated hotline is not updated with new hearing dates.
I also think, though, it’s going to have a lot to do with court backlogs in terms of what court you’re in. In Arlington, you might get reset for a preliminary hearing in nine or 10 months with your final hearing in three to four years. Baltimore isn’t quite that bad: You could maybe get a preliminary hearing in five or six months and a final hearing in two to three years.
Any Current Advice for Someone Looking for an Immigration Attorney?
The same advice that I usually have: Do your research, check online, and, most importantly, ask to confirm the attorney’s credentials. A lot of immigrants and people looking to normalize their status have gotten scammed by notaries. When you’re looking for an attorney, always ask the attorney about their credentials to prove that they actually are licensed to practice law. One good search tool is through the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s website. They won’t list us if we can’t practice.
For more information on court proceedings, naturalization, and immigration enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), see our immigration law overview.
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