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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Some Utah lawyers are upset about a new teleconferencing method for immigration cases which means their clients will never meet their interpreter or the judge deciding their case.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review has begun conducting hearings on Utah cases by a three-way setup. Parties are linked by audio and video from three locations: Immigrants and their lawyers are in Salt Lake City, translators and government attorneys are in Denver and the judge is on the bench at EOIR headquarters in Falls Church, Va. A television screen at each location allows the parties to see each other.
Attorneys argue in-person communication is vital in asylum requests and deportation matters, where a judge often needs to assess an immigrant's credibility.
Salt Lake City attorney Timothy Wheelwright, vice chairman of the Utah chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and other attorneys question how a judge can tell if an immigrant is making eye contact through a camera hookup.
EOIR spokeswoman Elaine Kom said the teleconferencing was created to deal with judge vacancies around the nation.
New Orleans is the only other city where the immigration judge sits in Falls Church. Kom said the arrangement could become permanent in Salt Lake City and New Orleans, as well as other cities, to handle a backlog of cases, some of which can take years to get to a hearing.
By using judges stationed in Falls Church, immigrants in some cities will no longer have to wait for a jurist to travel to their location to hear their cases, she said.
Steven Lawrence, who was among the first group of attorneys to participate in the system in Utah, described the process as "a little awkward."
"It's not a big deal, yet it is nerve-racking," Lawrence said.
He added that the translations are no longer simultaneous and make the hearings longer. In addition, it can be easier for immigrants to miss hand gestures that help them understand what's being said, he said.
Lawrence felt the judge in his case did a good job but said the technology is a drawback.
"He will never see any clients in front of him," the lawyer said. "He's not dealing with real people, he's dealing with the video."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)