Immigration Court via TV screen for detained immigrants solves some problems and makes others worse, according to immigrant rights activists who attend court hearings.
But the Department of Justice says video deportation hearings save time and money in the backed-up federal courtrooms.
In the DOJ’s Chicago Immigration Court at 525 W. Van Buren St., defendants appear by videoconference from county jails where they are being held. Even though federal criminal procedure rules say a defendant has the right to be present in the courtroom during a criminal trial and at sentencing, immigration hearings are non-criminal matters.
The videoconference system allows a “more expedient hearing” according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). Immigration judges can also hear cases from all over the Midwest from a central Chicago location. Video conferencing “enables immigration proceedings to be conducted without the transportation of inmates from the secure confines of the correctional institutions, thus saving travel costs and improving safety,” according to the EOIR’s website.
But volunteers from the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants “Court Watch” program say detained immigrants have a more difficult time understanding translators and communicating with their lawyers over the phone.
“[Videoconferencing] is one of those cases of a ‘solution’ bringing new problems to bear; some things are ‘better’ but other new things are worse,” said Melanie Schikore, spokeswoman for ICDI in an email. “It’s one more thing in the long chain of dehumanization.”
Are video hearings dehumanizing to the respondent or efficient and beneficial for both parties? A June 20 visit to the video docket hearings in Judge James Fujimoto’s courtroom at the Chicago Immigration Court showed both benefits and weaknesses of deportation-by-video. Fujimoto was not interviewed, because immigration judges are not allowed to speak to the media.
The video-conference hearings in Fujimoto’s June court call were for immigrant detainees convicted in criminal courts.
The judge began with the case of Segundo Vicente Guaman-Yapa, held without bond at the Kenosha County Detention Center in Wisconsin. His fiancee and young daughter sat in the Chicago courtroom with the couple’s lawyer June Htun. Guaman-Yapa cannot speak or understand English well. A Spanish translator was provided in the courtroom.
Guaman-Yapa was convicted of two DUIs, the second of which put him on house-arrest for a year. His fiancee told the court she drove him to his job and to medical appointments because of his DUI convictions. The Department of Homeland Security Immigrant and Custom Enforcement (ICE) detained him before he could serve the full time.
The only proceedings translated by microphone to the prisoner were points when Fujimoto asked him questions or spoke to him directly. None of the dialogue between judge and the lawyers for the defendant and the government was translated.
Guaman-Yapa’s lawyer sought his temporary leave from Kenosha to have surgery for a detached retina.
Fujimoto told Guaman-Yapa since he was engaged to an American citizen and has a daughter who is also a citizen, he may be eligible for a provisional unlawful presence waiver. These waivers have been available since March 4, 2013 for “certain immigrant visa applicants who are immediate relatives (spouses, children and parents) of U.S. citizens,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But Fujimoto warned Guaman-Yapa the DHS’s qualifications for the waivers had gotten “significantly harsher” in recent months, and he may not be able to qualify because of his DUI convictions. Fujimoto granted the temporary leave request, and the next hearing was scheduled. At the very end, Fujimoto allowed fiancee and daughter to come into the view of the video screen for a brief, emotional hello and goodbye.
As the day went on, respondents appeared on screen in a variety of prison jumpsuits from different detention centers all over the Midwest. Immigrants in Boone County Detention Center in Kentucky wore blue and white horizontal stripe jumpsuits reminiscent of old Batman movies. Dodge County Detention Center inmates wore blue V-neck shirts and matching pants.
Almost all respondents appeared with heads bent and spoke in low voices. ICDI and the Court Watch volunteers say videoconferences are dehumanizing and confusing for the respondent especially when off-site translators are involved. Court Watch volunteers say they attend hearings to provide a human presence for the immigrants and to document how they are treated.
“It is our goal that through monitoring and documenting we can bring transparency to this broken system and support the urgent need for more just immigration policies,” the ICDI website says.
A defendant from Tri-County, dressed in a beige jumpsuit, had to explain to Fujimoto (through a translator) that he could not raise his right hand to swear to “tell the truth and nothing but the truth” because his hands were cuffed.
Without looking up, Fujimoto assumed the respondent’s hands were cuffed in front of him and told him to raise his right hand to the best of his ability. The respondent tried to raise his right elbow into the air as high as he could manage. Fujimoto finally looked up at the respondent and hurriedly told him not to worry about it, muttering “aw geez” under his breath.
Most detained immigrants with serious criminal convictions in Fujimoto’s courtroom chose not to fight their deportation knowing that their chances of winning or being eligible for some kind of relief are slim to none. Instead, the majority of detainees asked for voluntary departure back to their native country to avoid more prison time in the U.S.
Lin Xue Si, held in the Boone County Detention Center without bond, faced deportation because of RICO violation charges filed against him. According to media reports, Lin Xue Si and two others were charged with allegedly using fraudulent credit cards to buy $8,750 in gift cards from local Wal-Mart and Lowes stores in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Yovani Moreno-Gachuz was detained because of a December 2013 residential arson conviction in Fairmont City, Ill. Moreno-Gachuz allegedly set fire to his ex-girlfriend’s house at 3:30 a.m. while she was inside sleeping along with four roommates, according to accounts in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Police were able to quickly extinguish the fire before anyone was injured. Fujimoto asked Moreno-Gachuz if he wanted to appeal his deportation and continue to serve prison time, or return to Mexico within two weeks. The prisoner chose deportation.
A visit to the courtroom shows video hearings could be improved to be less impersonal and intimidating for detainees, especially non-English speakers. But the use of video hearings demonstrates cooperation between the EOIR and ICE to prioritize the timely removal of detained immigrants that pose a threat to public safety.
Quick deportation of “convicted criminal aliens” is one of ICE’s current enforcement priorities, said ICE’s Public Affairs Officer, Gail Montenegro in an email. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes threats to national security, public safety and border security.”
— Immigrant deportation by video saves time, but can be ‘dehumanizing’ —