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Immigration court woes continue with the possible closure of Oklahoma City courtroom

The Oklahoma City immigration courtroom, a branch of the Dallas Immigration Court, could sit unused, causing those with scheduled hearings to travel to Dallas.
by Jennifer Palmer Modified: August 11, 2014 at 8:00 pm •  Published: August 11, 2014

In Oklahoma City’s immigration courtroom, the judge’s seat sits empty.

During a recent long-distance docket call, a black-robed judge in Dallas is seen on a small television screen.

Immigrants facing deportation file into the Oklahoma City courtroom, tucked inside the Oklahoma office of Homeland Security at Airport Road and S Meridian Avenue. The judge’s voice booms through speakers mounted in the ceiling.

The judge asks a courtroom assistant how many people are in the courtroom that day, because the camera angle prevents him from seeing for himself. She counts four. He asks her to turn the camera around so he can talk to them.

With the press of a button, the camera buzzes and rotates to point at the bench in the front row. There’s a man in a white polo, clutching a plastic shopping sack containing paper documents. Beside him is a woman in a black button-down shirt, her leg bouncing, likely from nerves, and a man in a neon green polo shirt, who moments ago was chastised by the judge for talking to his friend.

A fourth defendant, a man in black jeans and boots, leaves his spot next to a gap-toothed woman with a long, black braid and moves to the front row.

The judge begins, his words heavy.

“All of you are here today because the government of the United States wants you removed from the country ... the government alleges you entered illegally,” he says.

Each statement is echoed in Spanish, the voice of a translator.

But every few minutes, the audio feed becomes garbled, and they go back and repeat.

Video hearings such as these are used by the Department of Justice as a cost-saving measure. And while they have disadvantages, attorneys say holding proceedings via video in Oklahoma City is better than no hearings at all.

The Oklahoma City courtroom is at risk of becoming vacant and the city’s immigration court proceedings completely absorbed by the Dallas court, a situation that would require those with hearings to travel south for their day in court.

The Oklahoma City hearing location had 1,240 pending cases as of June, according to TRAC Immigration at Syracuse University.

A flood of Central American children and teens crossing into the U.S. illegally in recent months has brought immigration issues to light, including woes found in the country’s court system. The federal government has pushed to give the children expedited deportation hearings, compounding a backlog of cases. In Oklahoma, the average wait time is 563 days for a hearing.

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by Jennifer Palmer
Investigative Reporter
Jennifer Palmer joined The Oklahoman staff in 2008 and, after five years on the business desk, is now digging deeper through investigative work. She's been recognized with awards in public service reporting and personal column writing. Prior to...
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