Hundreds of immigration court hearings have been canceled because of video malfunctions in New York City, according to data obtained by WNYC.
Detained immigrants often see judges by video when they’re held in remote locations, but last year a court on Varick Street in Manhattan switched to hearing cases through video technology. The immigrants who use that court are held in regional detention centers and were previously transported to Varick Street for in-person hearings.
The change prompted a lawsuit by immigration attorneys, who claim the video equipment frequently breaks down and deprives their clients of due process.
New data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request appears to support their claim. A total of 316 hearings in New York were postponed in Fiscal Year 2018 due to video malfunctions, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs the immigration courts.
That’s a big jump from a total of 12 postponements due to video malfunctions in the previous two fiscal years combined. Andrea Saenz, supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, said those numbers seem accurate.
“It just goes to show that the video hearings are not giving our clients due process,” she said. Her group is one of of three public interest law firms suing the government over the use of video in New York.
“People are not getting fair hearings if they cannot rely on the technology to actually connect them to the judge who’s able to correctly hear them and assess their testimony,” she added.
But a spokesman for EOIR said things are actually improving. John Martin said the agency “routinely monitors the effectiveness” of video teleconferencing. “The FOIA statistics suggest that video malfunctions at the New York City immigration courts are decreasing in FY 2019 compared to FY 2018,” he added.
The data show 49 hearings were canceled due to technical problems from October 1st through the end of December, the first quarter of FY 2019.
But Saenz said this number could be falling because detainees from the Bergen County detention center, in New Jersey, have been brought to court in person since December because the technical problems are so serious at that facility.
Immigration courts around the nation have been increasingly relying on video technology, promoting it as an efficiency measure. Last year, the government told WNYC that only around 800 of nearly 126,000 video hearings were postponed for technical problems. But our freedom of information request revealed there were actually more cancellations, totaling 1,090 nationwide.
But EOIR’s Martin explained the discrepancy by noting the original number provided for FY 2018 did not include every type of hearing.
Regardless, the new data show a huge spike in canceled hearings because there were only 403 adjournments due to video problems two years earlier.
Hearings conducted by video are often used for immigrants at detention centers in remote locations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started using them in New York City last June. The agency originally blamed the decision on safety concerns, citing a large protest by immigration advocates outside the court building on Varick Street. It then said hearings by video are more cost efficient.
Public defenders are also complaining that hearings at Varick Street are now being expedited. They said they were told on Friday that trials scheduled for later this spring will be held as soon as next week because the court is adding more judges. EOIR did not respond to a request for comment.
Saenz said attorneys were caught off guard, and many aren’t prepared to make complicated arguments so quickly, such as asylum cases that require lots of documentation including medical exams and evidence from an immigrant’s home country.
“This is not efficient and this is not a fair way to run a court system,” she said.