ATLANTA, Ga. – 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.”