The Trump administration says it is trying to speed up legal proceedings for some of the record 13,000 migrant children in federal custody by using video hearings to stream testimony from detained youths into courtrooms, The Associated Press has learned.
The problem, some attorneys and judges say, is that technical glitches — including bad audio, weak connections and pixelated screens — are actually making it much harder for the teens in shelters to have a fair hearing. It can be challenging for judges to assess children's credibility without eye-to-eye contact, they say. And it further obscures the cases, which legally are supposed to be public.
But the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has custody of the teens, says its unannounced pilot program will save money and allows youths, some of whom are being housed at a cost of more than $775 a night, to appear before a judge more quickly.
The program for teens, piloted in conjunction with the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, launched several weeks ago. Video teleconferencing already has been widely used in a variety of adult legal proceedings.
So far, about 30 youths have appeared via videoconferencing before immigration judges in Phoenix and Harlingen, Texas, said Lydia Holt, an ORR spokeswoman. Similar hearings have been conducted in immigration courts in Miami and New York City, said Kathryn Mattingly, an EOIR spokeswoman. The AP learned they also have been scheduled in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, El Paso, Seattle, Tucson and San Francisco.
A Need for Speed
This summer, the optics of children in court became an embarrassment to the administration, with critics seizing on the fact that the immigration system requires children — some still in diapers — to appear before judges for legal proceedings.
Holt said the administration has recommended 75 more unaccompanied children for video hearings, typically migrants between the ages of 15 and 17 who have been in custody for a longer period of time and want their immigration cases heard swiftly.
"If at all possible, ORR does not want children to stay longer than necessary in our facilities while waiting for their immigration case to be heard," she said.
ORR shelters are nearly full, mostly with children who immigrated without their parents and have family or friends in the U.S. willing to take them in. But the children can spend months in detention as the government arranges their deportation or release to parents or other sponsors, who are now facing stricter guidelines for vetting in the U.S.
Almost 60 percent of all migrant children who had their first court date in fiscal year 2017 still did not have lawyers by this August, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.