Teleconferences Used To Decide Fate Of Illegal Immigrants

Lance Gay, Scripps Howard News Service, Jul. 1

ARLINGTON, Va.—The nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration is resulting in a flood of cases brought before the nation’s immigration courts, which are resorting to an increasing use of teleconferenced hearings to speed removal proceedings.

Immigration lawyers say that new rules adopted after the 9/11 attacks to speed up immigration hearings are resulting in rough justice for more than 300,000 aliens whose cases will go before immigration courts this year.

Others argue that the flood of cases being heard by immigration judges is just a reflection of a tide of the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Nadine Wettstein, director of the legal action center at the American Immigration Law Foundation, said the U.S. crackdown on those who overstay visas or sneak across the borders began before 9/11, but she said the atmosphere in immigration courts has become more hostile toward illegal immigrants in the last two years.

“Things were bad before, and they became worse,” she said. “The enforcement is tougher, but I think 9/11 is just an excuse for doing that.”

She protested that it has also become more difficult for aliens to appeal adverse decisions and stay in the United States.

Four months after the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered an overhaul of the immigration court system that he said had permitted 56,000 aliens to avoid deportation by dragging out appeals of their deportation decisions for several years. Under new rules that went into effect in 2002, appeals of immigration court rulings within the agency were truncated, but aliens still have rights to appeal the decisions to regular federal courts.

Mike Hethmon, a staff attorney for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington organization pushing for more stringent immigration controls, said the immigration courts are performing a valuable and needed service.

“They are overwhelmed,” Hethmon said. “They are doing a more-than-adequate job in the numbers they are dealing with.”

Hethmon said he would like to see increased funding for immigration courts so more people living illegally in the United States could be sent back to their land. “They are grossly underfunded, scandalously underfunded,” he said.

The immigration courts are the last s for those fighting to stay in the United States, and are a battleground for immigration advocacy groups and lawyers specializing in immigration law.

The number of cases being heard by immigration courts has increased tenfold, from about 30,000 cases in 1995 to 300,000 last year. The numbers don’t include those caught crossing the border with Mexico, who are dealt with administratively by Border Patrol officers.

Many of those ordered to appear before immigration courts are processed in perfunctory five-minute administrative hearings, at which the immigrants acknowledge they’ve been living in the United States illegally, and agree to return voluntarily to their land within the next three months.

But aliens arrested on serious offenses, or those who cannot post bond or are likely to flee, can be detained by the Department of land Security, the agency responsible for processing immigrants. On any average day this year, agency statistics show, more than 21,000 illegal immigrants are being detained, many housed temporarily in state or local jails until they obtain immigration court hearings.

At one recent teleconference hearing, immigration Judge John Bryant held hearings from his court in Arlington, Va., questioning detainees who appeared on a TV screen in orange jail uniforms from a temporary trailer in Farmville, Va., more than 300 miles away.

Looking nervously into the camera, Lincoln Duncan said he was brought from Trinidad to the United States when he was 12 in 1989, and now has three children who were born in the country and so are American citizens. Duncan said he was detained for illegally entering the United States after he was charged last year with possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana.

Duncan attorney Regina Kane argued that Duncan shouldn’t be split up from his children for a misdemeanor.

Prosecutor Michael Metzgar told the judge that an FBI background check disclosed that Duncan was sentenced to 11 months in jail in 1990 for illegal possession of a handgun in Baltimore—a conviction he had not previously disclosed.

Kane told the judge this was the first time she learned of this conviction, and Duncan acknowledged in the hearing that the FBI file was correct.

“He’s hanging on a cliff,” Bryant said. “This is potentially fatal to his application,” he said, ruling that further proceedings on the case would be put off until later this year so Kane could confer with Duncan face-to-face.

In a second case, Ana Matta Alvarado, 47, appeared on the TV screen to say she has been held in a southwest Virginia jail for 10 months because she didn’t have the funds to post a $1,500 bond. The woman came to the United States from El Salvador in 1988, and was arrested three times for shoplifting, but the cases were dismissed. Metzgar told the judge an FBI check of her records found she had no convictions.

Bryant ruled the woman should not be sent back to El Salvador for crimes of which she was not convicted. He suspended bail so she could be released.

Katherine Doane, Alvarado’s attorney, was happy with the outcome of the case, but was not pleased to be separated from her client by 300 miles.

“It’s not a good setup,” Doane said, contending the judge cannot get a feeling for the credibility of her client over a TV screen. “I do not like the video.”

A federal appeals court ruled in 2002 that teleconferencing immigration hearings is legal, and the TV networks are used in 40 of the 52 immigration courts nationwide. The agency said it’s considering using teleconferencing in all the immigration courts where it might be useful.

The 2002 ruling found that a hearing involving a Romanian asylum-seeker was “conducted in a haphazard manner” because of the video conferencing, but that the hearing was fair, and refused to overturn the agency’s denial of his asylum petition.

Comments from Readers

From: Casey Crews

“Things were bad before, and they became worse,” she said. “The enforcement is tougher, but I think 9/11 is just an excuse for doing that.” Yeah, right. Now they only have two years to stay in the country and appeal instead of ten. That’s a whole lot less milking of the taxpayer dollars by these corrupt lawyers. Poor folks.

“Duncan attorney Regina Kane argued that Duncan shouldn’t be split up from his children for a misdemeanor.” I agree, send them back with him.

From: Drew

Any way to make deportation of illegal immigrants more efficient sounds great to me. And this thing about giving American citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants seems just totally outrageous. I wonder if these illegals are able to use their children as a “stay in the country free card?”

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