Immigration courts are increasingly relying on video technology during President Trump’s administration, with more than 9 percent of all hearings conducted by video teleconferencing in fiscal year 2018, according to data obtained by WNYC. The government considers video more efficient, but immigration lawyers believe it can put their clients at a disadvantage.
During the fiscal year that ended in September, there were 125,636 televideo hearings, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR, a division of the U.S. Justice Department which runs the nation’s immigration courts. This was an increase of 14.5 percent over the previous fiscal year, even though the total number of hearings increased by just 7 percent.
The nation’s immigration courts have been using video technology since the early 2000s, primarily for detained immigrants. This enables the detainees to communicate with lawyers and judges in a courtroom instead of traveling there. Detention centers are frequently in remote locations.
But video-teleconferencing (VTC) technology is also now being used in New York City’s Varick Street courtroom, even though it serves the detention centers just across the river in Bergen and Hudson County, New Jersey and in Orange County, New York.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it suspended in-person hearings at Varick Street in June following a protest. Spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow said there were attempts by certain groups to disrupt ICE operations through “spreading misinformation and advocating violence” against employees.
“However, as the use of VTC is more efficient, providing an economic savings to taxpayers, while continuing to ensure the safety of ICE employees, the court, the public and the detainees, the decision was made to continue the use of VTC for immigration hearings for the foreseeable future,” she added.
The government has cited savings on fuel, tolls and personnel when immigrants don’t need to be transported to court.
But attorneys who represent those detained immigrants say any savings are offset by other costs.
“It has not been more efficient in the last five months here in New York,” said Andrea Saenz of Brooklyn Defender Services. Her group is one of three nonprofits funded by New York City to represent low-income detainees for free through the New York Immigrant Family Unit Project.
Saenz said the technology often breaks down, causing disruptions in the feed between Varick Street and the nearby detention centers. “They don’t have enough capacity, the lines have bad sound quality,” she explained. “Our clients can’t hear or understand the interpreter or what’s happening.”
At times, she said hearings are canceled causing her clients to stay in detention even longer at a cost to taxpayers. Attorneys also believe due process suffers when they’re unable to meet their clients in person and judges can’t look at clients directly in the eye.
Saenz would not say whether a lawsuit is in the works, only that attorneys are talking with the government about the problems and considering all options. The website DocumentedNY reported on speculation that VTC problems have added to the backlog of cases in New York.
John Martin, a spokesman for EOIR, pointed to statistics showing about 800 video teleconference cases, nationally, were adjourned in fiscal year 2018 because of technical malfunctions. Martin also said video technology is useful even where the courts and detention centers are not very far apart, because it enables “non-local judges” to assist with hearing cases.
The data provided to WNYC through a Freedom of Information Act request did not answer what percentage of all video hearings involved detained immigrants — for example, people held in ICE custody because they crossed the border without proper documents, or legal immigrants charged with crimes. The vast majority of people with immigration cases are not held in detention; they can travel to and from the courts on their own. The data in the FOIA also differ slightly from EOIR’s own online statistics, referenced by Martin. He has not yet responded to a request for comment about the difference.
An academic who has studied VTC also worries about its growing use in the immigration courts. “I think this is important because the use of video really separates the respondent,” said UCLA law professor Ingrid Eagly, referring to the term for an immigrant who appears in court.
Eagly’s research found judges are awkward with the format and immigrants who had their hearings by video were more likely to be deported. She noted that these were primarily immigrants in detention who had trouble finding lawyers.
But Eagly said the technology does provide more efficiency and flexibility to involve more judges, particularly when meeting “an immediate need and influx of migration in certain areas.” She seemed less persuaded about its necessity in places like New York, Chicago and Houston, however, where judges have been conducting hearings by video with immigrants who are detained nearby.
The government is proceeding to install more video technology in the immigration courts. This fall, two video-only courtrooms opened in Fort Worth, Texas and Falls Church, Virginia.