Pittsburgh’s immigration court will close Friday, forcing undocumented people in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to figure out how to attend their hearings in Philadelphia. Immigrant advocates fear this means more undocumented Pittsburghers are losing their path to citizenship.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review posted a statement online about the change late last week.
“Due to space and personnel limitations, the Department of Homeland Security is unable to continue to support immigration court hearings at the location on Sidney Street at this time,” the office said. DHS did not respond to WESA’s requests for comment about the change and whether it would be permanent.
Monica Ruiz, executive director of Casa San Jose, said her organization found out just days ago. Casa San Jose is a community resource nonprofit that advocates for Pittsburgh’s Latino community. According to Ruiz, immigration hearings in Pittsburgh provided an accessible path to citizenship for hundreds of people in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“People are always saying that immigrants should migrate the right way and the legal way. Well, these people are going to court. They’re literally doing it the right way!” she said. “So we should make it easier for folks to have this access, not harder.”
According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, people with cases assigned to the Sidney Street hearing location on the South Side will have the option to have their cases heard in person in Philadelphia or virtually from their homes or offices. The department did not respond to WESA’s inquiry about whether future cases would be afforded the same accommodation.
But these options create new obstacles for undocumented people in the region, according to Ruiz. She claims the trip to Philadelphia from the Pittsburgh region or West Virginia is cost-prohibitive.
Many undocumented people can’t get driver’s licenses because they don’t have a Social Security number. A bill in the Pennsylvania state House would allow undocumented individuals to apply for a driver’s license with a valid foreign passport or other forms of documentation. That bill remains in the House Transportation Committee.
As of next week, many undocumented individuals without a driver’s license would have to take a bus or train to Philadelphia. With court hearings beginning at 8:30 a.m., Ruiz argues these families would have to book overnight stays to get to court from Pittsburgh and cover immigration attorney travel fees.
The trip also means getting time off work in low-paying jobs that often don’t come with vacation time.
“The vast majority of the people that are here working are working in construction or in hospitality,” Ruiz said. She worries this will force community members to choose between deportation or job loss.
“Any reason for an employer to fire them, they’ll take it,” she said. “Because there’s five more people lined up behind them that will take the job.”
Attending a hearing virtually isn’t as easy as it sounds either. Throughout the pandemic, Casa San Jose has helped about 300 families get internet connections, according to Ruiz. The organization paid for some of those families to get hotspots. But Ruiz said a lack of connectivity and familiarity with technology is still a major hurdle for the community that affects “so many of the families we see that are attending court.”
A recent survey found that 58% of Southwestern Pennsylvania Latino residents rely on cell phone plans for internet on their home devices, and 91% do not have a connected device other than their smartphone.
Ruiz argues the Pittsburgh court hearings, which were done via video conference at the Sidney Street office, provided easy access for people who might not have a computer or cannot use one well enough to connect for their hearings. Casa San Jose often has a staff member standing by at the hearings office to assist people.
“They don’t know how to use this technology,” Ruiz said. “The consequence for this is an arrest or a deportation to potentially a situation back into a country that you obviously were fleeing from, which could ultimately lead to someone’s death.”
Nancy Milena and Linda Navarro, both from Colombia, are in Pittsburgh seeking asylum in the United States. They argue that many seeking asylum don’t have the financial stability to go to Philadelphia.
“This is something that affects us all… both financially and at work,” said Navarro. “It affects those who have a little money to go and those who don’t.”
Milena said people have support systems in the Pittsburgh region, and they would have to leave that behind to attend court in Philadelphia. Undocumented people will “have to go on their own, alone. They’re going to feel disoriented because they don’t know how to get around,” she said.
Ruiz argues that keeping immigration hearings in Pittsburgh would also keep the city’s immigrant population strong. “Our population here is steadily declining, and the only population that is growing is the immigrant population,” she said.
Casa San Jose has shared a petition online to call on the Executive Office for Immigration Review to keep hearings in Pittsburgh.
According to Ruiz, her organization plans to meet with the Department of Homeland Security Friday to suggest alternative options to keep immigration hearings available in Pittsburgh. She hopes Casa San Jose can play a role in keeping hearings in the area.
“What can we do to help this stay here? We’re doing this work anyway,” she said.