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Creating Method from Madness: How Law Students Tracked Pandemic-Related Court Disruptions

Rahima Ghafoori is a rising third-year student at the University of Virginia School of Law. As a member of IRAP’s UVA student chapter, she tracked the immigration courts’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)–the agency that oversees U.S. immigration courts–invited chaos when it decided to forgo uniform policies in favor of discrepant and varying guidance. Late-night Twitter announcements, inadequate COVID-19 precautionary measures, and widely varying rules were just a few consequences of the lack of planning and coordination by the agency. The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on cracks within a system fraught with foundational defects. Recognizing a need for data collection and observation in this moment, IRAP, consulting with members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), mobilized nearly 100 law students at fifteen of its law school chapters to track and keep record of EOIR’s actions.

The record-keeping culminated in the creation of the Court Operations Tracker—a database consisting mainly of publicly available EOIR announcements from March 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021. We hoped these records would shed light on how the immigration courts operated during this extraordinary time, and potentially help people whose immigration court cases were negatively affected or otherwise disrupted by EOIR’s COVID-19 response.

The Project

In an effort to promote transparency and accountability through observation, we tracked public official announcements of court closures, hearing postponements, and “standing orders” (i.e., court- or judge-specific policies) as well as news articles and other community reports about court operations.

  • We looked for tweets, Facebook updates, and EOIR listserv emails relaying announcements.
  • To track information posted on EOIR’s website, we used an internet archival tool known as the Wayback Machine to take screen captures of the website. Each Wayback Machine screen capture archived a page of the EOIR website at a particular date and time.
  • We also tracked community reports from news outlets, AILA members, and other practitioners to learn what was happening beyond what EOIR shared publicly

From October 2020 to April 2021, each student was assigned to a particular immigration court and tasked with gathering the requisite information and uploading it for our project directors and IRAP to review.          

What We Learned

My fellow project members and I logged over 800 events and announcements from the first year of the pandemic for over 70 immigration courts, with findings from our work revealing trends of general disorganization, dysfunction, and confusion.

  • Inadequate Public Health Measures: Overall, the information collected highlighted the impacts of EOIR’s decision to allow individual courts to determine their own operations. Community reports revealed some courts did not close after identifying positive cases, with one court even allowing a judge to come in with symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. Closures attributed to COVID-19 came with little to no guidance for those potentially exposed, and for months, courts declined to acknowledge that closures were due to COVID-19 at all.
  • Lack of Clear Communication Regarding Whether Court Was Open or Closed: The data we collected revealed a lack of clear communication and notice regarding court closures. Many of the public announcements of closures via email or social media did not include a reopening date or time and instead referred the public to EOIR’s Operational Status Map on its website. After looking through archives of the website, we determined courts often remained closed well beyond the date or time announced. More troublingly, the website was often updated to show that a court had reopened only hours before the start of business—and sometimes after.
  • Distant Alternate Filing Locations: To add an additional layer of confusion, if a court closed and offered an alternate filing location, i.e., a different court at which to submit paperwork, the alternate location was at times in an entirely different state. This presented an obstacle for noncitizens without a lawyer, given the dearth of public transit options and the lack of notice provided. This was likely also a challenge for attorneys; many immigration courts permitted email filing only briefly early on in the pandemic, and electronic filing did not become widely available until the end of 2021.
  • Unannounced Closures: Through our work, we also learned that court closures (and related reopenings) sometimes went unannounced. For example, the Adelanto Immigration Court closed for three months in 2020, but there was no official closure or reopening announcement from EOIR. Unless someone knew to check the intermittently updated Operational Status Map, they would not have known when the court closed or reopened. Documents recently obtained by IRAP through the Freedom of Information Act suggest this was not an isolated case and that, in fact, numerous closures went unannounced.

In addition to these troubling trends, the project highlighted another, more positive, finding: the power of student-led work. IRAP’s mobilization of law students facilitated the collection of information on our immigration court system and helped students engage in civic activism and participation. Moving forward, it is time for agencies to forgo their opaque cloaks and embrace a system of accuracy and transparency, and I hope our Court Operations Tracker will help bring about that change.