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How a Teenager’s Immigration Court Case Upended the Entire System

Reynaldo Castro-Tum's case triggered former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end administrative closure, which immigration judges use to close cases

This summary was featured in Documented’s Early Arrival newsletter. You can subscribe to receive it in your inbox three times per week here.

For three months last year, Documented sent a team of reporters to cover New York City’s immigration courts and observe the numerous ways the Trump administration has upended it. We called the project Immigration Court Watch.

Sometime in 2018, a teenager from Guatemala named Reynaldo Castro-Tum crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. He told the border patrol officer he spoke with he was headed to a trailer park in Western Pennsylvania popular with migrant workers. And when Castro-Tum missed a court hearing at the Philadelphia immigration court, the judge assigned to his case postponed it to ensure a court hearing notice got to him. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions then used special legal privileges to weigh in. He said immigration judges did not have the authority to close court cases without ruling in them, a process called administrative closure. ICE prosecutors were instructed to begin reopening cases that were previously closed. Documented and Latino USA followed the story of Castro-Tum and Roland Sylvain, a New Yorker whose case was reopened after years of inactivity. Listen to it here.

In other local immigration news…

How the Immigration Courts Malfunctioned: What We Saw

One woman drove three hours and spent $300 to attend her son’s immigration court case. The hearing was cancelled when the videoconferencing system malfunctioned. She would have to come back another day. A Haitian man waited a long time for his hearing, only for it to be rescheduled after the prosecuting attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Matthew Durkin, could not find the man’s file. He would have to come back another day too. At one hearing, an immigration judge decided to order multiple children deported when they didn’t show up to the court. “If they didn’t come this time, they’re not going to come the next time. We should just clock it out,” Judge Jeffrey L. Menkin said. The judge had the option of postponing their cases. 

These are just a few of the scores of cases in New York’s immigration courts Documented witnessed over a three-month period last year. Our reporters experienced a system that had long been beset with problems, from case files going missing to scheduling mishaps forcing cases to be canceled. But amid the Trump administration, an already balky system had been placed under enormous pressure. A dramatic increase in the number of cases due to ramped-up enforcement and policies forcing the prosecution of every case had pushed the courts to the very brink. Read more of our reporters’ findings here

ICYMI: Follow One Family’s Journey Through the Immigration Courts

Elvis had a simple request for the judge. Could she call his lawyer again? “There’s no reason for me to call back, sir. I called and he didn’t answer,” Judge Joy Merriman told the Guatemalan detainee who was attending the hearing as part of his asylum application.“I’m not going to give him a second chance.” His lawyer had asked to appear in court by phone, which the judge allowed. She had called the lawyer and gotten his voicemail. “The court has very limited time and resources,” Merriman said. “I still have 40 more cases this afternoon. My interpreter, the Department of Homeland Security’s attorney, my legal assistant, they all need to take a lunch break, because this is a very heavy docket.” It was one moment in a long sequence of indignities Elvis had faced since he fled gang threats in Guatemala. Listen to what happened to Elvis and his wife Wendy in the first installment of our collaboration with Latino USA.

New Jersey Immigration Lawyers Say Video Conferencing is Not Enough to Protect Against COVID

New Jersey immigration lawyers say there’s a lack of clear policies and rules concerning video conferencing systems installed to conduct immigration court hearings. In a lawsuit, they claim the death of local immigration attorney Raymond D’Uva and an unnamed court staffer in Newark is proof the conferencing system is failing to protect the public. The court provides lawyers a website link that allows them to appear remotely, but does not allow lawyers to share that link with clients to testify. Newark attorney John J. Perez, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in the lawsuit he tested positive when a client came into Perez’s office to testify. New Jersey Law Journal (paywall)

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