The New York Times | New York Immigrants Facing Deportation Will Get Video Hearings, Lawyers Say
By Liz Robbins
June 27, 2018
In the middle of a national immigration firestorm over the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and parents at the southern border, and with the president tweeting that detained immigrants should be denied due process in the courts, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on Tuesday made an abrupt, unprecedented decision at its Lower Manhattan court: Detained immigrants in area jails would no longer be brought to court for hearings, but would have their cases heard via a video conference.
Because many detainees meet their lawyers for the first time shortly before their hearings, immigration lawyers said the new policy would significantly affect their ability to represent their clients.
“The fact that someone is not physically in the courtroom really hinders a lot of the less tangible aspects of our successful representation,” said Sarah Deri Oshiro, the managing director of the Immigration Practice for the Bronx Defenders. “A judge is less able to assess a person’s credibility if they are not sitting in the room.”
The decision came in the wake of protests against the agency, known as ICE, orchestrated around the country last week by a group called Occupy ICE. Since Thursday, protesters have been outside the garage at 201 Varick Street in Manhattan where detainees generally enter the building. On Monday, when ICE canceled all hearings, protesters agreed to move across the street. By Wednesday morning, the group said it was ending the protests at Varick Street.
The Justice Department, which oversees the court, referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, the agency in charge of immigration. A spokeswoman for ICE, a division of Homeland Security, did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday about the how long the video conferencing would be in place. On Monday, Rachael Yong Yow, the ICE spokeswoman, told reporters that hearings had been canceled because of safety reasons.
Lawyers working at the detained court on Varick Street said they first learned about the policy change Tuesday from court officials.
Since 2013, New York has offered public defenders to those detainees facing deportation who could not afford private lawyers, the first such program in the country, known as the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and advocacy group, a November 2017 study showed that immigrants without lawyers won their cases only 4 percent of the time. But with the Family Unity Project, detained immigrants won 48 percent of their cases, giving them the right to remain in the country.
Sarah Gillman, a supervising lawyer with the Legal Aid Society said that hearings heard via video will “essentially eviscerate the entire model that’s been created,” and revert back to a system where lawyers had to locate clients detained in one of the county jails.
The in-person meeting that indigent detainees get with those project lawyers is their first contact, sometimes after weeks or months in jail. Lawyers who are part of the project — from Legal Aid, the Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defender Services — first discuss the case with a client who is brought from the jail in the morning. Hearings are in the afternoon.
With a video hearing, said Andrea Sáenz, the supervising attorney for the Immigration Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, a lawyer cannot show evidence to a client or answer questions because conversations are not confidential.
Detainees’ relatives also rely on the hearings as a chance to see their family members. On Tuesday, the daughter of a Mexican man detained for more than a year, said she had been looking forward to seeing her father in the courtroom, but was told the hearing would be on video. Then the connection failed, causing the hearing to be rescheduled for Wednesday. “It’s worse if I’m seeing him on TV,” Jennifer, 15, who asked that her last name be withheld because of her father’s uncertain immigration status, said in a telephone interview. “I won’t be able to see his vibe. I won’t be able to make eye contact.”
Ms. Saenz said a video screen turns an often emotional hearing into a two-dimensional experience. “It’s like they are on a TV show, and it allows judges to distance themselves,” she said.