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Immigration Law

GAO Critiques EOIR

GAO, Aug. 31, 2021 - COVID-19: Improvements Needed in Guidance and Stakeholder Engagement for Immigration Courts

"The Department of Justice's (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) took steps to modify immigration court operations and guidance to respond to COVID-19. For instance, EOIR implemented health and safety measures at immigration courts, such as requiring social distancing. From mid-March 2020 until mid-June 2020, EOIR also temporarily suspended hearings for individuals not in immigration detention. Immigration courts took other steps to reduce the number of people physically present in EOIR space, such as rotating immigration judges' and staffs' schedules. EOIR data indicate its courts delayed nearly 600,000 hearings from March through October 2020 due to court closures.

Senior EOIR officials told GAO that EOIR expected all those present in a courtroom to wear masks for the duration of a hearing. However, EOIR did not issue mask-wearing guidance tailored to courtrooms—nontraditional office settings, according to DOJ—that articulated this expectation because officials said that DOJ's existing guidance applies to all EOIR space. GAO identified several instances in which judges did not always require or wear masks in their courtrooms. Issuing tailored guidance could help EOIR better ensure that court staff and visitors understand expectations during hearings, particularly as public health guidance evolves.

Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and Department of Justice COVID-19 Actions

EOIR did not regularly engage with stakeholders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders told GAO that the pandemic highlighted long-standing limitations in EOIR's stakeholder engagement. For example, from fall of 2017 through April 2021, EOIR generally ceased holding regular stakeholder meetings. Stakeholders said these meetings historically provided opportunities for two-way communication with EOIR, which was increasingly important during the pandemic. Stakeholders noted challenges engaging with EOIR on their concerns regarding modifications to court hearing schedules and health and safety matters, such as EOIR's process to respond to COVID-19 exposures. Taking steps to regularly engage with court stakeholders could help EOIR address their concerns about its response to the pandemic and maintain positive relationships in the future."