The Trump DOJ’s Crazy Back-and-Forth on Coronavirus Prevention Posters

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Since Donald Trump took office, immigration judges have been on a short leash. By law or regulation, these public servants wear robes, must abide by ethical standards, and are expected to exercise “independent judgment and discretion.” But the Justice Department has nonetheless treated them poorly — imposing on them case-completion quotas, limiting their decision-making ability, and even putting restraints on their freedom to speak publicly about their work. If Attorney General William Barr gets his way, the Justice Department may even get away with busting the immigration judges union.

Yet these jurists soldier on. And on Monday, Ashley Tabaddor, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, took action and asked the Justice Department to take immediate steps to protect judges, courtroom staff, and the people who appear before them in the wake of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. “As you know,” Tabaddor wrote in a four-page letter, “our work requires us to be in close contact with the public on a daily basis, often in very large numbers and groups. Some of our respondents come from high-risk countries and even if they have not been to those countries since the outbreak, they may be in contact with those who have.”

Some of her requests to the Justice Department were quite basic, like encouraging sick employees to stay home and asking for “appropriate cleaning and disinfectant supplies to all employees and to members of the public visiting or conducting business before the Immigration Courts.” But in the absence of any meaningful guidance, let alone hand sanitizer, from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the functioning of immigration courts, the judges union did what any leader would do and sent another letter to the nation’s immigration judges — general recommendations on how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Included in the letter was this recommendation: “Hang the attached posters in public areas of the courts, including on the door to your courtroom.”

No one would think about taking issue with that suggestion. No one, that is, except the Trump administration:

The “offending flyers,” as the judges union put it in a follow-up tweet, were a pair of posters the federal government itself produced to create awareness about the virus, its symptoms, and how to prevent its spread. Turns out that Christopher Santoro, the acting chief immigration judge at the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, sent a strongly worded email to all immigration court administrators, more or less putting immigration judges in their place for … taking proactive steps to protect themselves, other court personnel, and the public. “This is just a reminder that immigration judges do not have the authority to post, or ask you to post, signage for their individual courtrooms or the waiting areas,” Santoro said in the email, which I obtained. “Per our leadership, the CDC flyer is not authorized for posting in the immigration courts. If you see one (attached), please remove it.”

Per our leadership. That leadership, it’s worth repeating, didn’t seem to have a COVID-19 plan of action for immigration judges, whose union leader had to take it upon herself to ask politely for direction and some supplies. In any event, the internet outrage over the directive — first reported by the Miami Herald — seems to have gotten to said leadership. When I reached out to the Justice Department for comment, a spokesperson had this to say in an email: “The signs should not have been removed. The matter is being rectified.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the judges union announced that the posters were going back up, and thanked everyone who amplified the outrage.

What Was Trump DOJ’s Problem With COVID Prevention Posters?