Debate Over Video In Immigration Courts

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As the immigration court system has become overburdened, it is increasingly using video-teleconferencing. The Justice Department says this is an important "force multiplier" and money-saver. But immigration lawyers complain it undermines their cases.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In the U.S., the recent crackdown on illegal immigration has led to increasingly crowded deportation courts. So, the federal government is trying to increase efficiency. It's conducting more and more deportation hearings by video teleconference. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this story, as part of a series on the overburdened immigration enforcement system.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: At the federal immigration court in Arlington, Virginia, the waiting room is packed. A standing room crowd spills into the hall that leads to five small courtrooms. Fatima-Matin(ph) is with the Justice Department agency that oversees this system.

Ms. FATIMA MATIN (Justice Department): The immigration judge is here, and the attorneys for the aliens are also here. But the aliens are actually somewhere else.

LUDDEN: That's right. No one whose immigration case is being heard today is in this building. Instead, about 150 detainees will be beamed into these courtrooms via video from local jails or federal detention centers around Virginia, in Cincinnati, Cleveland and El Paso.

Ms. MATIN: Well, it's a good use of resources. We're able to hear many more cases. We don't have to have immigration judges in all of those locations all across the country.

LUDDEN: No recording is allowed in the courtrooms. In the one I visit, a TV is set up on the side, with the screen split four ways. In an upper corner of the screen, one detainee appears. He's sitting against a white wall in prison-issued clothing. For activist Paromita Shah, of the National Immigration Project, the effect is something of a wide-angle mug shot.

Ms. PAROMITA SHAH (National Immigration Project Activist): You don't know who you have in detention. There are legal immigrants who are in detention. There might be citizens in detention. But the fact is that when you see someone in a jumpsuit in front of you, it definitely creates the perception that everybody is a criminal.

LUDDEN: Video hearings also pose what Shah calls an impossible choice for the detainee's lawyer: Whether to be in the courtroom, where you can confer with the judge and see any prosecution evidence, or forgo that to be with your client. Either way, attorney Susan Smollens says her immigrant clients, hooked up by video, are at a disadvantage.

Ms. SUSAN SMOLLENS (Immigration Attorney): They're in total isolation. They become less real. And all the body language that goes on - the nuances, the social part of the courtroom - is eliminated. And that's an important part of the case.

LUDDEN: Add to this another possible layer of technology. If a detainee needs Spanish translation, there's an interpreter in the courtroom. But if he or she needs another language, an off-site interpreter is called up on a speakerphone on the judge's desk to relay the testimony from the video screen across the room.

Ms. BRITTNEY NYSTROM (National Immigration Forum): I think the immigration court has erred too much in favor of efficiency at a cost of due process.

LUDDEN: Brittney Nystrom is with the National Immigration Forum. She's especially concerned about the use of video conferencing for immigrants seeking asylum protection.

Ms. NYSTROM: It's just not sufficient to have someone spilling out these horrendous stories over a TV screen, beamed into a courtroom maybe hundreds of miles away. That doesn't really get to a full and fair hearing.

Mr. JOHN TORRES (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): I would tend to believe that the immigration judge, if he feels that this is a person he'd much rather see in court before him, he has the capability to say, I'm going to extend this case until I can actually have this person in my courtroom. And we've seen that happen, in some instances.

LUDDEN: John Torres is with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He says for a system that handles some 350,000 cases a year, yet has only 57 courts across the country, it's just not realistic to have all parties in the same room every step of the way.

Mr. TORRES: I think of areas in Montana or Utah, Colorado, where in winter, it may be very difficult to transport over a mountain pass to get to a county jail to interview one person. And there are instances, now, where we can have an officer sitting in Chicago, using video teleconferencing on their computer monitor, wearing a headset, and interview that person in a remote area.

LUDDEN: This kind of remote legal work may be something lawyers and immigrants must get used to. Torres says the plan is for all new detention centers to have video teleconferencing capability.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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