(WSVN) - South Florida immigration attorneys are sounding the alarm. They say they’re being forced to risk their lives by attending their clients’ hearings in person instead of remotely. 7’s Karen Hensel investigates.

The Krome Detention Center in Southwest Miami-Dade County is where undocumented immigrants are held before a federal judge decides whether to release or deport them.

Kenny Panzer, immigration attorney: “Krome is a COVID dish. It’s a petri dish for COVID infections.”

Krome has had 91 confirmed cases of COVID, and while state and federal courts are conducting remote hearings, immigration trials are still taking place in person at Krome.

Kenny Panzer: “I don’t know who is calling the shots on forcing us to come in, but it’s abhorrent. It’s insidious.”

Immigration attorneys Kenny Panzer and Jamal Hinkson work together.

Panzer is 74 years old and suffers from several medical conditions. He says he cannot risk going to court.

Kenny Panzer: “I had the upper lobe of my right lung taken out. I have Crohn’s. My immune system is compromised. If I went in there, I’d be so at risk of coming down with COVID. At my age, it would be a veritable death sentence.”

Hinkson filed this motion asking a judge to allow one of their client’s trials be conducted by phone or video conference: “…counsel’s family members and even his employer are also at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19.”

It was denied.

The judge wrote, “court requires presence at merit hearing; counsel can request continuance for health concerns.”

Karen Hensel: “Even the detainees can appear via video. Why not the attorneys?”

Kenny Panzer: “I don’t have an answer. You read the judge’s order.”

Karen Hensel: “Just doing your job as an attorney, how fearful are you for your health and that of your family?”

Jamal Hinkson, immigration attorney: “I never thought that it would come to this point. It’s just chills that go through my body, and I immediately go into protection mode.”

Despite the risk, Hinkson went to court July 1 and won his client’s freedom.

The man had been locked up at Krome for seven months.

Jamal Hinkson: “There was such a concern of the high rate of infection at the detention facility that I felt even though I was concerned for my own health, my employer’s health, my family’s health, I also wanted to take into consideration his health, his family’s health.”

The lawyers stress this is not just about them, but the judges, clerks and witnesses who are also required to be present.

Kenny Panzer: “It’s something that’s unfair to everybody, and there’s no rational basis for it.”

In this letter from March, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the Justice Department said hearings should be held by phone or video conference “to the maximum extent practicable,” but even today, the more than 65 immigration courts across the country are not on the same page.

Kenny Panzer: “It varies from state to state. I just got off the phone with a dear friend of mine who is an immigration lawyer in New York, and he told me they’re entertaining telephonic hearings in the detention facilities in New York.”

In a statement to 7News, the Justice Department said it is “monitoring and minimizing risks presented by COVID-19” and is “committed to providing detained aliens with timely hearings to ensure that they do not remain in custody any longer than is required by the law.”

Hinkson was scheduled to appear in person again at Krome later in July.

He filed another motion requesting a video conference instead.

He got a call Tuesday saying a different immigration judge had granted the request.


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