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Immigration official addresses docket transfer

St. Louis attorneys still uncertain if clients can videoconference for non-detainee master hearings

St. Louis immigration lawyers are pleased that court administrators are evaluating how the merger of St. Louis and Kansas City dockets will affect attorneys and their clients, but they say questions remain unanswered.

Thomas G. Snow, acting director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Falls Church, Va., provided new information in response to the July 20 Missouri Lawyers Weekly story that examined the impact of transferring the St. Louis docket to Kansas City.

Click here to read Snow’s letter to the editor.

The acting director alleviated one concern of St. Louis immigration attorneys – whether master hearings for detainees would continue to be conducted by videoconference.

“To ensure continuity,” Snow wrote, they will continue to be conducted remotely “in St. Louis at the same location, albeit in a different room.”

The master hearings – generally the equivalent of preliminary hearings in civil and criminal courts – are held at the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service office in the Robert A. Young Federal Building in downtown St. Louis.

Federal immigration judges in Oakdale, La., preside by videoconference over St. Louis cases, but that will change when the St. Louis docket shifts to the new Kansas City Immigration Court and its judges.

That was to take place on Aug. 1.

Although Snow’s letter is clear on how detainee cases will be heard, it provides no specifics for non-detainee matters, the bulk of cases handled by St. Louis immigration attorneys.

Snow did note, however, that EOIR has reset scheduled hearings for non-detainees to Feb. 1, 2010. The step gives the agency more time to consider how those hearings will be conducted.

“EOIR is reviewing the procedures that will be used to address this caseload,” Snow said in his letter. He noted that attorneys may file motions to request earlier hearings.

While questions remain over how non-detainee cases will be heard – in-person, videoconference or some combination – St. Louis attorneys were pleased with the information Snow’s letter provided.

“That’s great news,” said Raymond Bolourtchi, a partner with the firm of Cofman & Bolourtchi. “We were really standing by waiting to see what would happen. I had no doubt that the court wouldn’t make all St. Louis lawyers and clients travel 200 miles to Kansas City.”

If that’s the case with non-detainee hearings – master, or preliminary, hearings and individual, the immigration equivalent of trials – Bolourtchi says there would be advantages and disadvantages to in-person appearances.

“I’d rather have my trials in person because the client is there and the judge has a better feel for the client’s credibility,” he said.

Travel to Kansas City, however, will add time and expense for attorneys and their clients, he said.

“It’s going to drive the cost up,” Bolourtchi said. “I can’t absorb the cost of transportation to Kansas City and not take it into account in my fee agreements.”

Although it would be “grueling,” Bolourtchi said it would make sense to group individual hearings back-to-back during a single week than to spread them out over weeks.

“I’d rather do that than have to go [to Kansas City] six weeks in a row,” he said.

Added cost could persuade some clients to forego representation or seek pro bono help.

“It may be more than they can afford,” he said. Bolourtchi said his firm already handles around 50 pro bono cases a year.

Suzanne Brown is past chairwoman of the Kansas-Missouri chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and an attorney with The Immigration Law Firm in St. Louis. She agreed that Snow’s communication contained a mixture of good news and unanswered questions.

“I’m glad that there’s going to be a place for the detained docket in St. Louis,” she said. “There was a lot of concern here about where that was going to be.”

But Brown said that the EOIR hasn’t definitively said if the videoconference master hearings apply to attorneys, or to attorneys and their clients.

“I have been told that the judges in Kansas City will allow attorneys to appear telephonically by videoconference as we have in the past,” she said. “But we don’t know if the clients will appear that way for master hearings.”

Brown, regarded by peers as St. Louis’ dean of immigration lawyers, said she’ll wait and see what EOIR’s next step is in gathering feedback and disseminating more information.

“I was in court today, and we were all kind of chatting about what would happen and no one seemed to know,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that this is how we have to get our information, but at least we’ve gotten it.”

Snow sent his letter to Missouri Lawyers Weekly, which provided copies to the attorneys quoted in this story.

Roger McCrummen an attorney with Kansas City-based McCrummen Immigration Law Group and chairman of the Kansas-Missouri AILA chapter, said St. Louis-based AILA members are anxiously awaiting detailed information.

“What we’ve heard is that the St. Louis attorneys who handle non-detainee removals were really concerned,” he said. “It looks like they [EOIR] are not making a statement on that one way or the other.”

McCrummen said that most of the information in Snow’s letter had been unavailable previously.

It’s also not known how the addition of St. Louis’ caseload will impact Kansas City’s docket and hearing schedules for judges John O’Malley and Paula Davis.

Kansas City has the larger docket – its jurisdiction includes Kansas, most of Missouri and a small section of Arkansas – but St. Louis’ case count appears to be increasing.

In 2008,  according to EIOR figures, 387 St. Louis cases were completed and 454 cases opened. During the first six months of 2009, the figures climbed to 263 completed and 361 new. They compare to Kansas City’s completed/opened count of 3,709/3,995 in 2008 and 1,445/932 in 2009.

Matthew Hoppock, an attorney in McCrummen’s office, said O’Malley and Davis preside over all the Kansas City court’s in-person hearings, but he personally has been involved in Kansas City cases judges in other states heard by videoconference.

When St. Louis’ docket is added to Kansas City’s, additional videoconferencing or a third judge will be necessary, lawyers predict. Either that, or cases may be scheduled later in the future.

“It will increase their workload and slow down all the cases,” McCrummen said.