Changes Of Venue Vex Immigrant Detainees

Move From L.A. to Texas Results in Court-by-Video, No Witnesses, Little Library Access

By Sandra Hernandez
Daily Journal Staff Writer

Alan DuignanLOS ANGELES - Ramon Gonzalez spent 10 months waiting in cramped detention centers for his day in immigration court. This month, Gonzalez went to court, but he never saw a judge face to face. Instead, Gonzalez sat in an empty room, faced a television screen and watched while an immigration judge reviewed his case in a courtroom 60 miles away. Like Gonzalez, hundreds of immigrants had their court venues change in November, after they were abruptly transferred from a San Pedro detention center to a Texas facility.

But, instead of appearing in a new court, they found themselves watching television monitors. Immigration officials confirmed to the Daily Journal that "nearly all the San Pedro cases moved to the South Texas Detention Center" are being heard via video conference.

J.ALAN DUIGNAN / for the Daily Journal

Legal observers say the abrupt transfers and video conference hearings likely will cripple the detainees' abilities to win their immigration cases - including those seeking asylum

"What is crucial in presenting these types of cases, where people are fighting to stay in the U.S., is to be in a place where your relatives and witnesses can testify," said Marc Van Der Hout, a San Francisco immigration attorney. "If you live in Los Angeles and are shipped to Texas, your chance of winning your case has decreased by 99 percent."

Others question why videoconference hearings were not sought with immigration judges in Los Angeles. "This is extremely troubling," said Judy Rabinovitz, a senior attorney with the ACLU's Immigrant's Rights Project in New York.

To change the venue of these cases but then be giving individuals videoconference hearings doesn't make sense," Rabinovitz said. "The federal government has a lot of explaining to do as to why they requested the change of venue."Congress approved videoconference hearings in 1996 as a way to help overwhelmed immigration courts. "Typically, videoconference hearings are used to help spread the caseload," said David Martin, former general counsel to the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton Administration. "It would have made a lot more sense to have the hearings in Los Angeles, where there is also video conference equipment available," said Martin, now a law professor at University of Virginia School of Law.Other lawyers questioned why the venue changes were sought when two judges assigned to the San Pedro cases are hearing cases in downtown Los Angeles and recently had videoconference equipment installed in their courtrooms. "I've never heard of anything like this," Van Der Hout said. "This is the worst of all possible worlds. If you are going to do videoconferences, at least do them from Los Angeles; otherwise, this is a kangaroo court."Videoconference hearings are the latest legal twist for some of the 404 detainees once held at the San Pedro detention center.

The facility was shut down unexpectedly for repairs in October. Most detainees were sent to the South Texas Correctional Facility, but 132 were transferred to Arizona, and 26 to Washington state facilities. Shortly after the closure, federal officials tried to move detainees' cases out of Los Angeles immigration courts and into other courts around the nation.Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversees detention, said venue changes were necessary to ensure timely hearings. "ICE sought change of venue in the vast majority of the pending San Pedro cases because our attorneys believed that was the appropriate action," Kice said. "The aliens' attorneys can oppose those changes of venue and request a hearing using video teleconference technology. Ultimately, the final decision rests with the courts."
However, attorneys such as Neils Frenzen, who runs USC Law School's immigration clinic, said government attorneys are ignoring judge's rulings against the venue changes.

Frenzen said immigration officials lost their bid to move his client's case to South Texas but refused to bring the immigrant back to California. "What ICE has done is file a second round of motions to change venue," Frenzen said. "To suggest the government filed the motions but it is the immigration judges who decides is ridiculous. The government is getting two bites at the apple." Frenzen said the transfers and venue changes are hardest for unrepresented detainees, who must now fight their cases far away from family, witnesses and free legal help. Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants are not entitled to an attorney.Nearly 65 percent of the 308 San Pedro detainees who had their court venues changed have no legal help, according to the Department of Justice.ICE did not reply to the Daily Journal's questions about whether the agency first sought to have videoconference hearings in Los Angeles.For detainees, the transfer and venue changes have left some weary.

"This isn't even a legal hurdle we face," said Kaliso Mwanza, who was detained in May. "It's a 10-foot wall that is insurmountable. We can't prepare any case like this."Mwanza has struggled to stitch together a complex legal case with few resources.He has been transferred four times in eight months. Immigration officials lost some of his legal documents during one of the moves, he said. And he fears key witnesses can't afford to travel to Texas to testify on his behalf. His latest test came in November when Mwanza scrambled to stop authorities from moving his case from Los Angeles to Texas. "I had four days to reply to the court," Mwanza, 40, said by phone. "I couldn't get to the law library until the day before the deadline. I had to write the court and apologize for the late filing."Mwanza's luck changed this month, when USC's immigration clinic took on his case.But for others, problems persist.

Daniel Javier Solando, a Honduran national, is among the detainees moved from San Pedro to Florence, Az.Since arriving at the facility, Solando has been allowed only one visit to the legal library, despite dozens of requests. "The guards just tell me they are working on it, but they never let me go to the library," Solando said.Solando, who is gay, said an immigration judge ordered him to file supplemental briefs in his asylum claim. "I can't do that because of the library problem," Solando said. "I'm going to take a deep breath and tell the judge why I don't want to go back. But I need evidence and legal information to help the judge rule in my favor. And right now, I can't do that if I can't get to the legal library."Solando, who was convicted of bankruptcy fraud and attempted kidnapping, said his hope of finding free legal help ended shortly after he was moved out of Los Angeles. "There are only a few groups out here, and they are already so busy with other asylum cases," he said.Detainees in South Texas face even tougher hurdles.Gonzalez speaks little English. His eyesight is so poor he has trouble reading legal documents. And he has no attorney."The judge told me to get a lawyer, but I can't find one," he said. Immigration courts list six free legal providers in San Antonio, and Los Angeles boasts 39 pro bono providers.Gonzalez said he has relied on other detainees to help fight his case and file motions.But with a new court date scheduled for February, Gonzalez said he is nervous about another round of videoconference hearings. "I just sat there, and it felt weird," he said. "You don't really feel as if you had your day in court. You just don't feel too sure of anything that is happening when you are watching a television screen.