They may be working pro bono, but a group of taxpayer-funded legal aid and pro-amnesty activists should get overtime for their creativity. On Wednesday, they filed a claim in federal court in Manhattan alleging that the government was violating the due process rights of illegal immigrants because their clients were not getting in-person deportation hearings.
The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of seven illegal immigrants and asserts that technical glitches with the video feeds, the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in the courtroom and the increased use of video conferencing at the Varick Street Immigration Court in New York City all violate due process and lead to longer detention time for illegal aliens.
“Immigration judges routinely delay scheduled proceedings for hours or adjourn them altogether because no line is available, while the detained immigrants sit in county jails, disconnected from the courtroom where they were scheduled to appear,” the lawsuit maintains.
Jennifer Williams, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement that a lack of in-person testimony “has effectively sanitized the immigration courtrooms of our clients’ raw human emotions and experiences, which are at the heart of these proceedings, and is preventing effective and meaningful representation by their attorneys.”
The lawsuit was brought in federal court in Manhattan by Brooklyn Defender Services, Bronx Defenders and the Legal Aid Society, which are all part of the Immigrant Family Unity Project, which itself is part of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Liberty Defense Project. That effort was launched in 2017 with $1 million in taxpayer dollars, offers pro bono legal aid to immigrants.
Ironically, the anti-enforcement activists who likely support the lawsuit are partly responsible for the shift to videoconferencing in the first place. Last June, anti-ICE protests outside of numerous courthouses, including Varick, resulted in courthouse doors being blocked, court hearings being delayed and also threats to ICE agents. In response, ICE and the administration adjusted to the hostile environment and began to hold hearings via video.
“Due to attempts by certain groups to disrupt ICE operations through spreading misinformation and advocating violence against ICE employees, ICE decided to suspend transport of detainees for the foreseeable future to the Varick Street facility for immigration hearings. This decision was made in order to ensure the safety of ICE employees, the court, the public and the detainees,” ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow told the New York Daily News at the time.
ICE has not seen any reason to revert to in-person hearings, which pro-amnesty activists contend is an obvious plot to keep illegal immigrants in detention or, on the flip side, to more expeditiously deport them.
Or neither. The program launched in 2009 under President Obama and was created in part to save judge’s time, costs to the taxpayer and allow a quick disposal of the case. A Department of Justice fact sheet said video conferencing “promotes effective case management by allowing immigration judges to conduct hearings, on an ad hoc basis, for their counterparts in other immigration courts and thereby assisting with unusually heavy caseloads.”
The suit outlines two cases – one involving an illegal immigrant with cognitive problems who therefore had trouble understanding the proceeding,s and the other case was about a transgender immigrant who felt uncomfortable talking about prior abuse and allegedly was disturbed by the presence of ICE agents.
The plaintiffs might have some difficulty proving that those two individuals would have fared or felt better with an in-person appearance and independent studies of the 10-year program are slim.
One of the few in-depth studies involved the review of thousands of cases in immigration courts, by UCLA law professor Ingrid Eagly. She reported in her findings the data “does not support the conclusion that televideo courts assigned disadvantage in allocating relief to detained immigrants who appeared on a television screen.”
She noted that after controlling for numerous factors that could influence the decision making process on the merits, “there was no statistically significant difference in grant rates for relief and voluntary departure applications across televideo and in-person detained cases” and there was no evidence that video hearings somehow biased judges one way or the other.
The claims may be far-fetched, but it is hard to not think simply gumming up the legal system with an endless stream of lawsuits is part of the strategy, rather than an actual defense of the facts.