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Pivoting in a Pandemic: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Immigration Cases

As Director of New England Law’s Immigration Law Certificate Program, Professor Dina Francesca Haynes aims to prepare students for both the circumstances that immigration lawyers face today, and the challenges that she anticipates students who go on to practice immigration law will face in the future. The turbulent environment of immigration law requires legal counsel to be skilled in pivoting their approach to changes, that Haynes notes, often happen overnight. One unanticipated event that’s thrown a wrench into ongoing immigration cases, has been the coronavirus pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, Haynes has taken on both individual habeas cases and worked on class action federal litigation surrounding clearing detention centers in light of COVID-19. First and foremost, she acknowledges the impact that the global healthcare crisis has had on immigration policy. Concern surrounding disease spread has given lawmakers additional justification for preventing individuals from entering the country. She points out that the current circumstances provide an opportunity for lawmakers to push anti-immigration agendas forward under less scrutiny. Haynes anticipates that as the pandemic continues, we’ll see restrictions tighten even further.

The detention centers that house those with pending cases, even prior to current events, were notorious for their poor conditions. This has only contributed to a rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases within those facilities. Haynes comments: “There are numerous reports, and I have seen for myself, that detention centers are rife with human rights abuses, including lack of medical care, being served rancid food, being forced to wait in freezing cold cells, being put into solitary confinement for refusal to engage in ‘voluntary work programs, sexual violence committed by guards, parents being separated from their children, and teenage girls having their menstrual cycles tracked. Detention is costly and unnecessary, as most asylum seekers pose no threat to the community.”

The treatment of individuals with coronavirus has also been under scrutiny. Haynes is concerned that there have been instances where individuals with confirmed cases have been moved to different detention centers when their lawyers inquire or file a habeas claim seeking release due to the presence of the virus in a center. Relocating someone without proper notification to their legal counsel is illegal, but unfortunately is a scenario that representing counsel have had to navigate. 

Both relevant in times of a global healthcare crisis and otherwise, Haynes emphasizes how important it is that immigration law educators take the time to prepare students for the emotional challenges that an immigration lawyer faces. “In the best of circumstances, this type of work often feels like a matter of life or death, but at the end of the day there’s nothing greater than feeling like the work that you’ve put in has helped to save a life”. 

Interested in potentially practicing immigration law? Start off by reading: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming an Immigration Lawyer.