28 Sep Judges, lawyers say video justice is just adding to the mes…
In Fort Worth, a judge in a black robe sits in a small courtroom with no place for the public to watch the proceedings.
Thirty miles to the east in a Dallas courtroom, a government attorney sits before a judge’s empty bench.
At a federal lockup hundreds of miles away in Big Spring, detainees in prison garb line up in front of a camera.
In all three places, their images are beamed back-and-forth to each other so that asylum seekers and other immigrants can learn their fate on big flat-screen TVs. This is immigration court, where some attorneys and judges say a rapid expansion in the use of video conferencing — including in numerous new tent courtrooms along the border — is exacerbating difficult conditions in a system plagued by a backlog of more than one million cases.
Distant, garbled voices and dropped video signals are just some of the aggravations for those in immigration courts. Attorneys for immigrants say they are inefficient. Judges cope with crushing caseloads. There’s little electronic filing. Many judges are former government attorneys and the judges are not independent of their Justice Department bosses, unlike in U.S. civil and criminal courts.
And sharp increases in the number of people detained after crossing into the U.S., along with the way President Donald J. Trump’s immigration crackdown leads to constant policy changes, have added to the stress: The immigration court backlog has nearly doubled in the Trump years.
Attorneys worry that due process — that lynchpin of justice — will suffer for both detained immigrants and those free but fighting deportation.
“It’s way messier than I have ever seen it,” said Dan Gividen, an immigration attorney who until May had been deputy chief counsel in Dallas for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“It is a different planet now,” said Kelli Stump, an immigration attorney who has practiced in Dallas courts for 13 years.
Paul Hunker, ICE’s chief counsel for the Dallas region, defends the system, including the use of video hearings, which federal immigration law allows.
“It is fundamental to immigration due process that persons in removal proceedings can understand the charges against them, be heard and defend themselves,” Hunker said in a statement. “Immigration hearings conducted by video teleconference fully accommodate these requirements.”
We visited the immigration courts in Dallas in recent weeks to take a look at the current state of affairs, and this is what we found:
On the tenth floor of the Earle Cabell Federal Building, a line weaves down the hallway. There aren’t enough wooden benches to seat all those who’ve come to Judge Richard Ozmun’s immigration court.
Inside Courtroom 3 on this day are many small immigrant children. Ozmun towers over them, rubbing his temples near his thick white hair. Then, he rubs his eyes, too.
“I am going to be continuing cases for several years,” the judge says to an attorney.
Judge Ozmun finds himself uttering almost the same refrain day after day:
“Some of these cases are years out.”
“We are so overloaded with cases.”
In the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration, the backlog in the immigration courts was 516,000 cases. Now it is more than a million cases.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University nonprofit, says cases for immigrants wait an average of two years, but some judges are scheduling cases to be heard six years out.
The number of immigrants apprehended at the border — there were 550,000 in 2016 and about 810,000 thus far this year — has overwhelmed an already overtaxed system. Trump’s Justice Department has attempted to remedy things by, for example, decreeing a year ago that judges must complete 700 cases each year to earn a satisfactory performance rating.
Union leaders for the judges say they should control their dockets in the interest of due process, not quotas or goals. Changing case priorities — because of Justice Department orders, the cases of some more recent immigrant arrivals take precedence over the cases of immigrants who have been waiting longer — adds to the backlog, too, they said.
“We’ve seen this constant shuffling of the docket back and forth continuing on,” Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge speaking as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said in a Friday news conference in Washington, D.C. “We’ve seen interference with every element of the judge’s role. And we’ve seen the court essentially turned into a widget factory where everyone and every part is being treated as they’re some sort of property being wiggled around.”
In Dallas, on another court day, Ozmun is plowing through a day’s docket of 60 cases again.
He’s preparing to call a break. But attorney Amanda Doom stands up and asks if she might squeeze in her case. It’s for a 16-year-old Honduran girl who was approved for a special visa for juveniles who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. A critical portion of the process has already been approved — and her deportation case needs to be terminated.
ICE attorney Eric Bales agrees to let the girl’s hearing happen right away. The judge teases that he’s being kind. “That’s because I didn’t have to carry 800 pounds of files today,” Bales jokes.
Piles of file folders are not unusual in immigration courts. That’s because, despite years of planning, the courts still don’t have an electronic filing…