Sunday, May 11, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Romeo Gomez Martinez answered the judge’s questions with simple responses, mostly “sí” or “no,” in a subdued monotone.
A court interpreter, sitting next to a federal prosecutor, dutifully translated for the judge.
Everyone was in Courtroom 1 of the Las Vegas immigration court except for Martinez, whose fate would be decided shortly. Martinez, in a reddish-orange jumpsuit, with bags under his eyes, short, stubbly hair and a mustache, addressed the court on a video feed.
He was not far away though, just across the alley in the Department of Homeland Security offices where a line of immigrants being held at the Henderson Detention Center were waiting for their day in video court.
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Due to cost-saving measures, it is becoming less and less likely for an immigrant detainee in Nevada to see a judge in person. A hiring freeze in 2011 and a budget that has failed to keep up with the pace of a growing caseload have forced immigration courts to find new efficiencies.
In March, to save time and money, the Las Vegas court started video conferencing for some hearings. It already was used for hearings in Reno, where judges previously traveled to decide cases in person.
Immigration lawyers and immigrant advocates say the growing use of video conferencing is a disadvantage to the immigrants, depriving them of the opportunity to truly express themselves and understand the proceedings.
“A lot of people in this situation do not understand the details of their cases, and they go in with an expectation that it will be explained in court, which isn’t always the case,” said Astrid Silva, an immigration reform advocate with Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “With teleconferencing, it just makes it more difficult for them to understand what is happening. In the effort to make the process faster and to save money by expediting cases, they are taking away the human aspect of the process, the ability to express yourself in court.”
Martinez, 30, had been in the United States since 2005, when he paid a smuggler $2,000 to sneak him into the country near Nogales, Ariz. He worked in Las Vegas making aquariums. In 2010, he was convicted of a DUI, and now Immigration and Customs Enforcement was seeking his deportation. After a series of queries, Judge Jeffrey Romig asked Martinez if he had anything to add, any positive factors the judge should be aware of.
“No,” Martinez said.
Ten minutes after sitting down in front of the television, his case was decided. Martinez would be deported.
“That concludes your proceedings in this court,” Romig said, in a tone of voice commonly used over speakerphone or in a conference call. “I wish you good luck.”
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The immigration court backlog has soared 64 percent over the past few years, from 223,707 in fiscal year 2009 to 366,724 this month, according to the Executive Office of Immigration Review. In Las Vegas, the pile of pending cases numbers 3,638, up from 2,868 in 2011.
“Here’s where the politics have crept in and caused a problem,” Las Vegas immigration attorney Peter Ashman said. “It looks good for Congress, especially the anti-immigrant politicians, to pump up the budget of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They tell ICE to be more aggressive in removing people while not understanding that it’s not ICE who makes the final decision on removal, it’s the immigration judge. But paying for more judges doesn’t sell well to the base. If they were serious about enforcement, they would fund all the elements in the process.”
The Justice Department’s 2014 budget request for Immigration Review also points out the contradiction in adding agents and funding for rounding up undocumented immigrants while not augmenting the court’s resources.
As of April 24, there were 247 immigration judges nationwide, down from a high of 272 in December 2010. Las Vegas had three judges until 2009, when one retired and was not replaced. Since the beginning of 2011, the Justice Department has been under a hiring freeze.
Hence the videoconferencing, to save time and resources.
One by one, the detainees take their turn in front of the video setup, a television with a camera mounted on the top.
“It strips the alien of a lot of his rights to a fair hearing,” Ashman said. “I don’t care how good the quality of video is, it is not the same thing as being in the same room as a judge. … You have to balance the cost of administering justice and the right of people to be heard. I hate to think someone would be deported and could be in danger of torture in their home country simply because the judge couldn’t sense their fear because they didn’t see the detainee in person.”
Some help may be in sight. The hiring freeze was lifted in February and of 200 positions being filled, at least 30 are expected to be immigration judges.
It has not been decided where those new judges will be assigned, and it is not yet known whether Las Vegas will benefit.
In the meantime, judges will continue to climb the mountain of case files. According to a 2013 study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, it takes an average of 550 days before a decision is handed down in an immigration case.
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During a recent videoconference hearing, Nadia Zapata Lopez, who was seeking a cancellation of removal, sat in a courtroom in Reno with her lawyer and a court interpreter, while Judge Romig and a federal prosecutor were in Las Vegas.
Lopez’s attorney had sent dozens of pages of documents the day before to be admitted as evidence in the case, but they had not yet arrived. Visibly frustrated, Romig ordered a recess to get the documents faxed to Las Vegas, but eventually the proceedings had to continue without the documentation.
At the end of the hearing, Romig was prepared to decide but postponed a ruling until October. Cancellations of removal are capped each year at 4,000, and the cap has been reached for the 2014 fiscal year.
“Again, it’s a political decision with little thought for reality on the ground,” Ashman said. “In 1996, when they passed new immigration laws, they capped the number of people who could receive a cancellation of removal each year. It was a political decision made to look tough, but with little consideration for the actual number of cases they see each year. This only leads to further delays.”