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Beverly Hills, California, United States
Eli Kantor is a labor, employment and immigration law attorney. He has been practicing labor, employment and immigration law for more than 36 years. He has been featured in articles about labor, employment and immigration law in the L.A. Times, Business Week.com and Daily Variety. He is a regular columnist for the Daily Journal. Telephone (310)274-8216; eli@elikantorlaw.com. For more information, visit beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com and and beverlyhillsemploymentlaw.com


Monday, July 18, 2022

The government ends immigration hearings in Pittsburgh, causing some people to drive hundreds of miles to Philly

For Irma Domingo Cax, who is fighting to stay in the United States after fleeing violence in her native Guatemala, it’s about 305 miles from her home in Pittsburgh to immigration court in Philadelphia. She knows because she traveled west to east to attend her proceedings, after the federal government closed the hearing site in Pittsburgh, citing “space and personnel limitations.” That has made Philadelphia the location of the only physical, in-person court for all of Pennsylvania and West Virginia — and left immigrants who are required to appear at potentially life-altering hearings struggling to comply. “It’s very far away,” said Cax, 37. A friend drove her to Philadelphia for her June hearing, she said, but she had to miss work, losing money she needs to pay her immigration lawyer. Gas is expensive and tolls add up. The Executive Office of Immigration Review, which administrates the courts, said immigrants don’t need to trek across the state — they can attend hearings virtually, via phone or computer. But advocates say many people are too poor to own those devices, and others have problems connecting through an electronic system they don’t understand. Ad ChoicesA taste Like No Other, from a place like no other. SPONSORED CONTENT A taste Like No Other, from a place like no other. by Meiomi Wines “It’s an access to justice question, a due-process question,” said Pittsburgh immigration attorney Jacqueline Martinez. “It goes to the core of what immigrant rights, and an immigration case, is all about.” One client couple from Guatemala was ordered deported after they missed their hearing, she said. They thought their only option was to travel to court in Philadelphia. They don’t own a car, and didn’t have the $800 that an acquaintance wanted to charge to drive them across the state. ADVERTISEMENT Martinez is trying to get their case reopened. The Pittsburgh site was never perfect, advocates say, a small space on the city’s South Side that provided an on-site video linkup to judges in Philadelphia. EOIR refers to it not as a separate court but as “the Philadelphia immigration court’s Pittsburgh hearing location.” But for people in western Pennsylvania, it was Pittsburgh immigration court. That’s where immigrants and attorneys knew to go for hearings. It offered easy access for people who didn’t have or know how to use a computer. Until recently it had a staff member who served as translator, kept the schedule on track, and could perform duties as simple and as vital as checking the hall to summon a waiting witness. ADVERTISEMENT The ability of immigrants to appear in Pittsburgh before a real, live judge went away years ago. The saga of the closing began in April, when EOIR issued a notice saying it planned to end hearings in Pittsburgh. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle and Conor Lamb pressed for hearings to continue there, arguing that people who don’t have stable internet service, or can’t afford it, would suffer inordinate costs trying to get to Philadelphia. EOIR said in a statement that the Sidney Street facility was not a property of the Department of Justice, within which the immigration courts operate, but of the Department of Homeland Security. And as of April 30, DHS no longer provided that space. ADVERTISEMENT EOIR said it “understands that stakeholders were accustomed to the availability of the DHS room for remote hearings, and that the change results in inconvenience.” People in western Pennsylvania can petition for a change of venue if they wish — Cleveland, in particular, is ready to accept cases, EOIR said. Irma Domingo Cax, who is fighting to stay in the United States after fleeing violence in Guatemala, stands outside her home in Pittsburgh on July 14, 2022. Irma Domingo Cax, who is fighting to stay in the United States after fleeing violence in Guatemala, stands outside her home in Pittsburgh on July 14, 2022. JOHN BEALE Philadelphia immigration attorneys say they haven’t noticed that the local court is suddenly more crowded — the pandemic has routinely caused cases, particularly initial appearances, to be heard virtually. But the impact is real on clients who now may need to travel an entire day to appear at a 15-minute hearing. “Incredibly difficult, and in some cases impossible,” said Philadelphia attorney Christopher Casazza. “We’re going to see people with legitimate cases get ordered deported due to their inability to appear at their hearings.” Said attorney Brennan Gian-Grasso, former head of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “It’s the most vulnerable respondents who will suffer.” So far government authorities have not been moved by efforts to have hearings resume in Pittsburgh. A petition drive and a demonstration outside the building had no effect. Martinez and others say the people hurt most by the closure are those who have nothing: People with no money, no lawyer, who can’t speak English and don’t understand the system. Many are seeking asylum, a legal means to stay in the United States to avoid harm in one’s homeland. Amid calls for immigrants to “get in line” and “follow the rules,” migrants who want to attend their hearings now face new challenges. Undocumented people cannot get driver’s licenses in Pennsylvania, and the cost of hotels and bus or train tickets — and paying an attorney to travel — are generally prohibitive. “We’re definitely pushing for the reopening of court in Pittsburgh,” said Laura Perkins, emergency response organizer for Casa San Jose in Pittsburgh. She encourages immigrants with court dates to come to the offices of the advocacy organization, where she offers both a ready computer and assistance in working through the conferencing system. “We’re providing space, and helping,” she said. “If we don’t, someone could be deported.” The closure comes at a time when the immigration courts face an extraordinary backlog, a docket of more than 1.6 million cases, up from 1.1 million before the pandemic — and double the caseload of 2018, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. That delay leaves people in limbo for months and years. Immigration court is different from other courts, not part of the judiciary but of the executive branch. The Justice Department attorney general, a political appointee, is the system’s supreme arbitrator. There are no juries, and defendants generally don’t have the right to court-appointed attorneys. Cax said she came to the United States in 2017, fleeing an abusive ex-husband, and is seeking asylum. She provides for her three children by working a job in the construction industry. She traveled to Philadelphia and back on the same day last month. “Someone took pity on me. They drove me,” Cax said. She’s worried, about how her case will go, and how she’ll come up with money to pay her lawyer. In Philadelphia she appeared before a different judge than the one who was hearing her case in Pittsburgh, which she found disconcerting. Philadelphia immigration attorney Lilah Thompson, the liaison between EOIR and the Philadelphia chapter of AILA, said that advocates’ arguments to simply relocate the Pittsburgh hearing space, to a different federal building, or even to a law school or other property, went nowhere. “It’s a huge loss for unrepresented folks especially,” she said. “The consequences will be that people get [deportation] orders.” Lawyer Martinez said many who come here from rural areas of their homelands don’t know how to operate a computer, nor understand how to work Zoom-like programs, she said. Some are illiterate, making any written instructions useless. Immigrants generally have much lower access to the internet, even as that connection becomes key to obtaining work, education, and health care — and to attending hearings. Only 12% of foreign-born residents who don’t speak English have high internet proficiency, a study found. More immigrants have been arriving in the Pittsburgh area, Martinez said. Brazilians have come to escape crime, along with Muslims who are being targeted in India. Some Ukrainians have settled recently, and they may need to attend court hearings despite the Biden administration’s protections. Some clients, Martinez said, have degrees from excellent colleges. Others have no education at all. “But everybody,” she said, “is supposed to figure out the court system.” For more information, contact us at: http://www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com/index.html

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