By Tom Hals
Feb. 13, 2019
Rights groups have sued the Trump Administration for violating constitutional rights of immigrants by refusing them in-person deportation hearings in New York immigration court, and instead forcing them to make their case by videoconference from detention.
In a lawsuit filed late on Tuesday, three rights groups alleged that in June immigration agents in New York announced they would no longer bring detained immigrants to court hearings and that proceedings would be held exclusively by video. The case claims the changes are part of the Trump administration's policy to speed up deportations with as few legal protections as possible.
"We, as a society, owe due process to people facing such enormous consequences - not to lock them up and show them a TV screen where they cannot properly hear the judge, speak to their lawyers, or see their loved ones in person," said a statement from Andrea Saenz, an attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, one of the groups that brought the suit.
Hearings by videoconference have been plagued by technical failures that prevent immigrants from seeing, hearing or understanding what is happening in the courtroom, according to the complaint. Those problems are compounded by language barriers and the frequent presence of immigration officers with the detained immigrant, which can discourage testimony about sensitive information vital to a case, according to the lawsuit.
Immigration law gives judges discretion to conduct hearings by video, so long as it does not violate requirements of due process.
Remote hearings have become a tool used by immigration judges to try to reduce the swelling backlog of cases, which has grown to more than 800,000 cases.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which falls under the Justice Department and runs the nation's immigration courts, said less than 1 percent of videoteleconferencing (VTC) hearings had to be adjourned due to malfunctions.
"EOIR has successfully conducted hundreds of thousands of VTC hearings, and it's an integral part of its common-sense strategy to reduce the pending backlog of cases," said Steven Stafford of EOIR. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.
About 7 percent of the 1.2 million immigration hearings in fiscal year 2018 were conducted by video, according to EOIR.
But courts, attorneys and academics have found problems with technology.
In October, a deputy chief immigration judge sent an email to courts asking them for input on their use of videoconferencing, according to documents obtained by Reuters through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The Omaha immigration court wrote that videoconferencing technology at one of its locations only worked "sometimes", while the Dallas court said attorneys were not allowed into one of the facilities in which videoconferencing takes place, the documents showed.
Research by Ingrid Eagly, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Law School showed that detained immigrants whose proceedings are held through video are more likely to be deported.
Tuesday's lawsuit was brought on behalf of seven unidentified plaintiffs, including three lawful permanent residents, who are detained at jails in the New York metro area.
The lawsuit, also brought by the Legal Aid Society and the Bronx Defenders, is seeking class status to represent people detained by the New York field office of ICE and who were denied an in-person deportation hearing.