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New Immigration Court seen as Band-Aid solution to big problem

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New Immigration Court seen as Band-Aid solution to big problem

Pat Murphy//March 8, 2024

Though news that the Department of Justice plans to open a second Immigration Court in Massachusetts this spring is being viewed as a positive, lawyers fear the additional court may not have a huge impact on the issues dogging their immigration clients.

The DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review has announced plans to open Lowell Immigration Court in early April at 150 Apollo Drive in Chelmsford.

Thomas Stylianos Jr.

Lowell immigration attorney Thomas Stylianos Jr. welcomes the new court for admittedly selfish reasons.

“It is seven minutes from my office,” Stylianos says. “It’s hard for me to think negatively at all about it.”

When Stylianos has to appear at the Boston Immigration Court, he typically allocates half-a-day for the roundtrip.

But Stylianos acknowledges that the location of the Chelmsford court may be problematic for clients with limited transportation options since it’s not near any of the MBTA rail lines.

“When I look at the new court, I don’t think you can get there,” he says. “It’s in a suburban, hi-tech industrial park. There may be sporadic bus service, but the industrial park was designed for professionals with cars.”

In the end, Stylianos says he doesn’t see the opening of the Chelmsford court as being much of a “game-changer.”

Matthew J. Maiona

Matthew J. Maiona, managing partner of Maiona & Ward Immigration Law in Boston and West Roxbury, says he would prefer to keep his practice mainly in the Boston Immigration Court. But he may not have a say in the matter.

“We really don’t have much of an option,” Maiona says. “The Boston Immigration Court is sending out emails saying, ‘Hey, your case has just been transferred to the new court in Chelmsford.’”

There were 151,219 immigration cases pending in Massachusetts as of the end of January, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which pegged the commonwealth as having the seventh largest backlog of any state. The nation as a whole faces a backlog of nearly 3.4 million immigration cases of all types in the latest count.

Stylianos says that, over the years, he’s seen the amount of time it takes to get an immigration case heard increase dramatically from the six months it used to take.

“I do some defense work in Immigration Court — both asylum and family cases,” Stylianos says. “I have a client who has had a case in Immigration Court for nearly 10 years now. We just heard it got bumped again.”

Stylianos is skeptical that the opening of the Chelmsford court will have an appreciable impact on the timeframe for clients to get before a judge.

“I would like to think it will,” he says. “But that remains to be seen. It’s like emptying the ocean with a bucket.”

Maiona likewise foresees the opening of the Chelmsford court as having only a marginal impact on the backlog of cases.

“Until we actually address the root causes, this is all just Band-Aids,” he says. “There are a lot of issues driving immigration. There needs to be more pathways to legal immigration. We have at least three failed nation states in our hemisphere: Haiti, Venezuela and Ecuador. In Haiti, we have gangs taking over the airport. The people who are coming [to the U.S.] are coming for fear of their lives and safety.”

A spokesperson for EOIR says the agency will release information on its website regarding the court’s staffing when the court opens.

Meanwhile, the Boston court, located in the JFK Federal Building, lists 20 “internet-based” judges plus Theresa Holmes-Simmons, who was named acting assistant chief immigration judge in 2019.

Maiona counts about eight courtrooms in the Boston court.

“Some judges do sit in person, but the majority of hearings are virtual,” he says. “The attorneys for the government in general appear virtually. But a number of judges that you see on the website don’t actually have courtrooms. Obviously, opening up a new court could change that, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Stylianos says space is clearly an issue for the Boston court.

Last May, the EOIR announced the appointment of 19 new immigration judges to courts in seven states. Four of the appointments were for Boston.

“They don’t have space to hold hearings, either live or over the internet,” Stylianos says.

Underlining the issue of stretched resources, Holmes-Simmons’ online biography shows she is also the acting assistant chief judge for the Philadelphia Immigration Court and a “backup” judge in five other courts, including those in Buffalo, Detroit and Hartford.

Maiona says there’s clearly a need for more judges and court staff, but given the numbers of people crossing the border, an expansion of the Immigration Court system alone won’t resolve the backlog

“I’m not sure the government is going to be able to hire its way out of this one,” he says. “The [new court will] hopefully help get speedier hearings and reduce the backlog. But will it solve the problem? No.”