HARTFORD — A plan to stop holding federal detention hearings in Connecticut’s only immigration court is raising concerns among political leaders and immigrant rights advocates, who say the defendants, their families and lawyers will be unfairly forced to travel out of state to have their day in court.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is questioning the reasoning behind the change, which he sees as a “significant roadblock” to achieving a fair and final resolution to immigration cases.
“Requiring people, especially detainees, to appear at an out-of-state court puts a significant burden on their ability to defend themselves,” Blumenthal wrote in a letter sent to Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan and obtained by The Associated Press.
In the letter, Blumenthal asks McAleenan to explain the reasoning behind the change in processing cases at Hartford Immigration Court, the types of cases affected and where they will now be heard.
Blumenthal said his office has learned from attorneys, affected immigrants and others that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will no longer issue notices to appear in the Hartford Immigration Court and that there are plans to eventually stop hearing detained immigrants’ cases. But he said his office still has not received any confirmation from federal authorities.
“Bad enough that they are arresting some of these people who have been in this country for 20 years or more, worked hard, raised families, given back to communities, but then to move them to Boston without any accountability for why there are no hearings here is absolutely unconscionable,” he told the AP in an interview.
Spokesmen for both the Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the change, including whether it’s even happening. The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review is responsible for conducting immigration court proceedings, while the Department of Homeland Security’s ICE manages the detention system.
Blumenthal accused ICE of “throwing more hurdles in the way of fairness” for the affected immigrants, who are already at a disadvantage given language barriers, financial resources and access to lawyers.
Connecticut Attorney Erin O’Neil-Baker, who represents hundreds of immigration clients, said her office received confirmation last month that Hartford Immigration Court will no longer be hearing any more “detained” cases.
“So, every Connecticut resident, their case will be heard in Massachusetts, which is awful,” she said. “What it is, is a huge deterrent. Because attorneys like me do not want to travel to Massachusetts.”
Melvin Medina, public policy and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said it’s unclear why the federal government is making the change and what kind of impact it will ultimately have.
He noted that Connecticut’s immigration court in Hartford has a reputation for holding people on high bonds, so moving cases to Boston could be beneficial for some defendants. A study by Syracuse University found the Hartford court was tied with the Tacoma, Washington Immigration Court for having the highest median bond amounts during the first eight months of fiscal year 2018.
But Medina agreed the policy change would create a hardship for many families. Boston is about 100 miles northeast of Hartford.
Statistics obtained by ACLU from the Executive Office for Immigration Review show the number of cases in Hartford hasn’t been slowing. The court handled 6,949 hearings in fiscal year 2017 and 7,604 in fiscal year 2018. As of March 31 of 2019, just three months into the year, there have been 4,124 immigration hearings held at the court.
“We’ll be watching this pretty closely in the coming weeks to see what these changes mean for people,” Medina said.