ATLANTA, GEORGIA - Seven children stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a Texas immigration facility. Their image was beamed 1,000 miles away to Atlanta, where a judge sat in a largely empty courtroom and contended with glitchy audio.
At multiple points, a woman's voice broke through the audio into the Atlanta courtroom, translating the testimony of an asylum seeker in a separate hearing.
The Trump administration this week expanded the use of video hearings for immigrant children, having dozens of them held in Houston appear before a judge based in Atlanta. Advocates believe the effort could portend a nationwide expansion of video courts to process the immigration claims of children in U.S. government custody.
While the government would not confirm its plans, advocates warned of a greater burden being placed on detained immigrant children, many of whom are not yet teenagers and don't have guaranteed access to an attorney.
Technical difficulties caused delays and snarled the launch of the hearings in Houston, one of the busiest immigration courts in the nation.
Video court hearings already occur for some children held in facilities that are hours away from an immigration court — in parts of Texas, Virginia, New York and Tennessee.
But Houston has one of the nation's largest immigration courts, with hundreds of cases heard weekly and children often appearing before a judge in person.
Neither the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, nor the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has custody over 3,650 immigrant children, would answer why the Houston-to-Atlanta pilot was necessary. EOIR spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said that using video in general “reduces costs, increases hearing flexibility for backlogged dockets, and generally reduces processing or waiting times for decisions in administrative proceedings, without affecting the integrity of the proceedings.”
There were 25,351 immigration court hearings held by video conference in the first 17 days of January, roughly a quarter of the 95,492 for all of 2019, according to government figures obtained by immigration attorney Andrew Free.
Most of the children in government custody crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone. Some children in ORR's custody were sent across the border by their parents in border camps, while others may have been separated from a parent or adult relative due to suspected fraud or neglect.
On Monday, the first day of the change, Judge Sirce Owen in Atlanta saw dozens of children via video conference. They included a confused 7-year-old boy with no lawyer, a teenage mother trying to calm her toddler daughter, and a group of kids all dressed in the same green sweaters.
In the Atlanta courtroom, against the din of fuzzy audio, the judge pressed on with the group of seven children from a government-run facility in Corpus Christi, Texas, telling them why they were there and explaining their rights.
As the audio interference worsened, Owen narrowed her eyes at the screen and said, “We're hearing some feedback on the microphone.”
The audio problems continued as the judge finished with the kids, resetting their hearings for April 20 to give them time to find attorneys.
As Owen waited for another group of children to file into the room in Corpus Christi, a female interpreter's voice came over the speakers in the courtroom, “...and they pointed a gun at me...” before fading to garble.
Outside observers are typically prevented from sitting in on asylum testimony to protect the privacy of the person applying. Owen ultimately cut off the video and delayed court for more than an hour so the problem could be fixed.
Eventually, Owen got to the children waiting in Houston. One by one, she called up about a dozen children from a facility wearing matching forest-green zip-up sweaters. The children sat at a table next to an attorney from Catholic Charities.
Owen's face was shown on a flat-screen television to the left of the table. But the children instead looked forward at a Spanish-language interpreter.
In the courtroom gallery, a teenager waiting for her hearing tried to calm her 2-year-old daughter as the delays mounted. The toddler tapped a toy against the bench and ran up and down the line, gently hitting the knees of other children waiting for their hearings.
A 7-year-old boy named Justin appearing from a government-run facility seemed confused when the judge asked him about whether he understood his right to an attorney. Owen explained again slowly and the boy told her he did want more time to find one.
Owen saw more than 40 children Monday. She reset some cases to allow the children to find attorneys or to give their attorneys time to prepare. She granted a handful of voluntary departure requests. And she transferred some to the adult docket because they would turn 18 before their next hearing.
“Kids are being railroaded through the proceedings,” said Zenobia Lai, vice president of immigration legal services for the Catholic Charities chapter in Houston.
“If it's in person, the judge would be able to catch body language,” she said. “Here, I don't know if the judge was looking at them at all. I don't know what she sees.”
Judges have been urged to decide children's cases more quickly and children's attorneys learned that government-contracted facilities would no longer take children to law offices for meetings, making these cases more difficult to prepare, said Jennifer Podkul of immigrant advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense.
Gladis Molina, child advocate program director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, notes that video has been used for children at government-contracted facilities in recent years. In a previous pilot program in Phoenix, children participated in their hearings from the facility while the judge and government attorney were in court about five minutes away, she said.
“It almost felt in the courtroom what was happening was the processing of file after file because the kids weren't there,” she said. “They were just images on a screen as opposed to children whose lives were being impacted by the decision that was being made in court.”