DALLAS - In Fort Worth, a judge in a black robe sits in a small courtroom with no place for the public to watch the proceedings.
Thirty miles to the east in a Dallas courtroom, a government attorney sits before a judge's empty bench.
At a federal lockup hundreds of miles away in Big Spring, detainees in prison garb line up in front of a camera.
In all three places, their images are beamed back-and-forth to each other so that asylum-seekers and other immigrants can learn their fate on big flat-screen TVs. This is immigration court, where some attorneys and judges say a rapid expansion in the use of video conferencing - including in numerous new tent courtrooms along the border - is exacerbating difficult conditions in a system plagued by a backlog of more than one million cases.
Distant, garbled voices and dropped video signals are just some of the aggravations for those in immigration courts. Attorneys for immigrants say they are inefficient. Judges cope with crushing caseloads. There's little electronic filing. Many judges are former government attorneys and the judges are not independent of their Justice Department bosses, unlike in U.S. civil and criminal courts.
And sharp increases in the number of people detained after crossing into the U.S., along with the way President Donald J. Trump's immigration crackdown leads to constant policy changes, have added to the stress: The immigration court backlog has nearly doubled in the Trump years.
Attorneys worry that due process - that linchpin of justice - will suffer for both detained immigrants and those free but fighting deportation.
"It's way messier than I have ever seen it," said Dan Gividen, an immigration attorney who until May had been deputy chief counsel in Dallas for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
"It is a different planet now," said Kelli Stump, an immigration attorney who has practiced in Dallas courts for 13 years.
Paul Hunker, ICE's chief counsel for the Dallas region, defends the system, including the use of video hearings, which federal immigration law allows.
"It is fundamental to immigration due process that persons in removal proceedings can understand the charges against them, be heard and defend themselves," Hunker said in a statement. "Immigration hearings conducted by video teleconference fully accommodate these requirements."
The Dallas Morning News visited the immigration courts in Dallas in recent weeks to take a look at the current state of affairs, and this is what we found.
On the tenth floor of the Earle Cabell Federal Building, a line weaves down the hallway. There aren't enough wooden benches to seat all those who've come to Judge Richard Ozmun's immigration court.
Inside Courtroom 3 on this day are many small immigrant children. Ozmun towers over them, rubbing his temples near his thick white hair. Then, he rubs his eyes, too.
"I am going to be continuing cases for several years," the judge says to an attorney.
Judge Ozmun finds himself uttering almost the same refrain day after day:
"Some of these cases are years out."
"We are so overloaded with cases."
In the last year of President Barack Obama's administration, the backlog in the immigration courts was 516,000 cases. Now it is more than a million cases.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University nonprofit, says cases for immigrants wait an average of two years, but some judges are scheduling cases to be heard six years out.
The number of immigrants apprehended at the border - there were 550,000 in 2016 and about 810,000 thus far this year - has overwhelmed an already overtaxed system. Trump's Justice Department has attempted to remedy things by, for example, decreeing a year ago that judges must complete 700 cases each year to earn a satisfactory performance rating.
Union leaders for the judges say they should control their dockets in the interest of due process, not quotas or goals. Changing case priorities - because of Justice Department orders, the cases of some more recent immigrant arrivals take precedence over the cases of immigrants who have been waiting longer - adds to the backlog, too, they said.
"We've seen this constant shuffling of the docket back and forth continuing on," Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge speaking as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said in a Sept. 26 news conference in Washington, D.C. "We've seen interference with every element of the judge's role. And we've seen the court essentially turned into a widget factory where everyone and every part is being treated as they're some sort of property being wiggled around."
In Dallas, on another court day, Ozmun is plowing through a day's docket of 60 cases again.
He's preparing to call a break. But attorney Amanda Doom stands up and asks if she might squeeze in her case. It's for a 16-year-old Honduran girl who was approved for a special visa for juveniles who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. A critical portion of the process has already been approved - and her deportation case needs to be terminated.
ICE attorney Eric Bales agrees to let the girl's hearing happen right away. The judge teases that he's being kind. "That's because I didn't have to carry 800 pounds of files today," Bales jokes.
Piles of file folders are not unusual in immigration courts. That's because, despite years of planning, the courts still don't have an electronic filing system here as they do in the criminal courts.
All parties quickly agree that Daffne Canales has passed requirements to get her visa and get going on her new life in the U.S. "Thank you, thank you. This is the best news all day," Doom says.
Outside, the jean-clad teenager beams. Friends take turns hugging her. "You don't have to come back again," Doom says.
She also says such smooth proceedings are rare.
COURT DATE CONFUSION
The way things have gone for Laura, a 29-year-old asylum-seeker from Mexico, is rare, too. But not nearly as rare as it used to be.
The woman, who asked to be identified by her first name only because of security concerns, crossed the border in Nogales, Ariz., before making her way to relatives in the Dallas area.
"There's so much insecurity where I live," she said. The mother of two says she fled because of the constant threat of violence from cartel gangs. There are even beheadings in the central Mexican region where she lived. "I want a better future for my children. I don't want them to grow up in fear."
But navigating the system can be mind boggling. The Department of Homeland Security sent her two notices to appear at different places at the same time on the same day.
One was for her first official hearing in the civil immigration court. She feared she would be ordered deported in absentia if she missed it.
When she arrived at court, she was told she wasn't on the docket.
Laura then rushed to the other Dallas location she'd been told to go to by the second DHS document. It was a location where government contractors place ankle monitors on immigrants as an alternative to detaining them.
But once there, she says, she was told to go to a third location: 8101 Stemmons Freeway, an ICE office.
Once there, she was told to report back in May of 2020.
Lawyers and immigrants have complained for at least a year about being given fake or dummy court appearance dates issued by the government. The Dallas Morning News first reported on the nationwide problem in September 2018.
NOT AN INDEPENDENT JUDICIARY
The immigration courts are administrative courts supervised by the Justice Department and thus not an independent judiciary system as is the case in all state and federal criminal courts.
The judges' union has pushed for years for full independence.
"The incessant backlogs and loss of public faith in the court are insurmountable obstacles without the correction of the fundamental design flaw of having a court in a law enforcement agency," said Tabaddor, the union president and immigration judge.
The American Bar Association supports the idea of an independent immigration court judiciary.
Within the courts, attorneys also complain that too many former prosecutors become immigration judges.
A year ago, the Justice Department opened 15 new immigration courts in a granite federal building in Fort Worth where judges exclusively hear cases by video. The immigrants and attorneys they talk to are scattered across the nation.
The public generally can't enter those courts, but can watch proceedings via video from venues like the Dallas courtrooms.
On one recent day, Fort Worth immigration Judge Joseph T. Leonard tells Jose Felipe Martinez, via video conference, that he is prepared to recuse himself in the detainee's immigration case. Only a year ago, Leonard worked as a federal prosecutor in McAllen and that very Justice Department office had handled the case that put Martinez behind bars on drug charges.
Leonard says he didn't think he prosecuted Martinez' case, but if Martinez wants him to step away from his deportation proceedings, the judge is willing. Martinez says, 'no.' He's soon ordered removed to Mexico after serving his time on the criminal charges.
Then Leonard faces delays in another case as he sits in his Fort Worth court, waiting to hear from ICE attorney Bales via video in Dallas Courtroom 2, because Bales has recently changed jobs and court documents he needs were sent to his old Justice Department email address.
Only a few months earlier, Bales was Judge Bales, with his own immigration court.
THE FIGHT OVER VIDEO
Justice via video has been around since at least 1996. But its use has widened rapidly in recent years. Attorneys are fighting the video hearings, but federal courts have said that such hearings are "consistent with legal due process," said Hunker, the regional ICE chief counsel.
But video hearings give an unfair advantage to the government, said Gividen, the ex-government attorney.
"You can just make a better impression in person," he says.
Many immigration attorneys agree with him. Video conferences hamper direct contact between immigrants and their attorneys or make it difficult to examine key documents. At times, the audio or video can falter, hurting the effectiveness of the defense.
In Courtroom 6 in Dallas, Judge Deitrich Sims hears the case of a 21-year-old Guatemalan. At his side is a big batch of legal files in blue folders that nearly reach up to his shoulders. The Guatemalan is in court sooner than expected because he was convicted of driving while intoxicated.
Asylum hearings can be closed unless the immigrant agrees to allow them to be open to members of the public. This asylum-seeker from Guatemala lets a reporter watch the proceedings so long as his name is not published. He's in a lock-up in Okmulgee, Okla. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, he appears by video in Sim's courtroom.
His attorney, GianCarlo Franco, submits an unusual motion, asking the judge to order that the detainee be brought to Dallas for an in-person hearing. At issue: due process and an equal footing for all parties in what's an adversarial setting.
Sims says "no." If the video or audio falter, he says, he'll just stop proceedings until things are fixed. As for not being able to see the client's body language, he says he can see it just fine.
But the fact that the law allows video conferencing does not mean that it is appropriate for every case, said Andrea Saenz of the Brooklyn Defender Services. Her organization is challenging its use in a federal court in New York.
"Judges are empowered and can make sure that the court hearing is fair," she said.
In Sims' courtroom, the Guatemalan and his attorney attempt to prove he's worthy of asylum because he says he was tortured.
The government attorney says he has two photos that show the man suffered injuries. But Franco notes the photos are only of a thigh and a knee, and there's much more.
The judge asks why Franco didn't take his own photos of his client's scars.
Franco explains he wasn't allowed to take his camera phone into the lock-up.
The Guatemalan man soon attempts to show his scars by unzipping his orange jumpsuit, but Sims tells him not to remove his clothes. Through an interpreter that can speak his native K'ekchi language, the man then describes his beatings by a gang known in his community simply as "the torturers." He lists at least nine areas of his body that he says were cut by gang members.
It's a three-hour hearing. At times, the Guatemalan puts his head down, but, through the video screen, it's unclear if he is upset, or crying.
The judge says he won't make a ruling immediately.
"If we lose, we will appeal," Franco says in the lobby.
Amiena Khan, executive vice president of the judges union, says many judges understand why the government is using more video courts to deal with the backlog crisis.
"The agency is looking to speed the entire process up," she said. But with many of the changes, "what they are actually doing is lessening the effectiveness and efficiency of the court."
The judge made clear she was speaking as a union official, and not in her capacity as a New York-based judge.
"That adage you hear that 'justice delayed is justice denied' applies," Khan said.
She is scheduling cases into 2024.
Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com