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Public Defenders Blast Shuffled Immigration Hearings In NY

By Emma Cueto | March 17, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

A recent move by immigration authorities to bump up a slew of hearing dates in New York without notice has public defenders crying foul and painting the move as a not-so-subtle attack on the ability of immigrants facing deportation to have proper counsel.

According to the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the Executive Office for Immigration Review abruptly rescheduled about 25 trials, all in cases involving someone in detention, that had been scheduled to take place months from now for dates last week and this week. And the court did not inform attorneys that the dates had changed, NYIFUP said.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Jennifer Williams, an attorney with NYIFUP. "I really believe this is a direct attack on a sanctuary city, a direct attack on our NYIFUP program, a direct attack on our immigrant community."

NYIFUP has characterized it as "illegal, unacceptable, and a thinly veiled attempt to avoid true representation of immigrants in the court."

A spokesperson for the EOIR told Law360, "The Executive Office for Immigration Review prioritizes all detained cases."

According to a memo from January 2018 that the office provided, the EOIR's goal is to complete removal proceedings when the person is detained before trial within 60 days and to complete non-detained removal proceedings within a year.

"The designation of a category of cases as priority is an indication of an expectation that such cases should be completed expeditiously and without undue delay consistent with due process," the memo said. It also said that the memo itself was not intended to be a sign that cases that had already been docketed should be rescheduled.

The office did not comment on the specific allegations by NYIFUP.

Williams said that the rescheduled trials are part of a series of changes at EOIR that have made it more difficult for NYIFUP to represent clients.

NYIFUP was founded as a pilot program in 2013 and began to be city-funded in 2014, making it the first public defender program for people in immigration court. Today it has about 60 attorneys.

Because people in immigration court don't have a right to an attorney the way someone in criminal court does, however, EOIR judges do not typically assign attorneys to people appearing before them. When it first began, Williams said, NYIFUP attorneys would go to immigration court on days when new cases were brought in, offer their services to people, and meet with those who asked for their help before the cases were called.

Recently, however, that system has been disrupted, in particular by a new emphasis on remote video conferencing as opposed to bringing detained people to the courthouse for appearances.

This means that some people might never be brought into immigration court at all — and that NYIFUP attorneys can't meet with potential clients, Williams said. NYIFUP filed suit over the video conferencing policy in February.

The EOIR also rescheduled some hearing dates and bond hearings in December without notice, she said, but rescheduling dozens of trials created problems on a whole new level.

By moving up trials, the EOIR jeopardized attorneys' ability to ensure that they have necessary documents and evidence to present in time, NYIFUP said.

According to Williams, attorneys had to go in and check the online portal for individual cases in order to catch the changes in the first place.

"It just feels so targeted. We are now in this very defensive posture, just thinking 'What's going to come down the pipe this week?'" she said.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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