Trump’s making migrant minors appear in court via video, and it’s hurting their cases

JUCHITAN DE ZARAGOZA, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30: A child, one of thousands of Central American migrants in the caravan, eats while in a camp for the evening on October 30, 2018 in Juchitan de Zaragoza, Mexico. Following a break on Sunday, the migrants, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries, resumed their march towards the United States border. As fatigue from the heat, distance and poor sanitary conditions has set in, the numbers of people participating in the march has slowly dwindled but a significant group are still determined to get to the United States. It has been widely reported that the Pentagon will deploy 5,200 active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to prevent members of the migrant caravan from illegally entering the country. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A child, one of thousands of Central American migrants in the caravan, eats while in a camp for the evening on October 30, 2018, in Juchitan de Zaragoza, Mexico.

Trump’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) wants to livestream migrant children’s testimony into courtrooms rather than allow them to appear in court. The administration’s claim is that it will speed up proceedings. Whether that’s true or not, the costs to justice outweigh any such benefit. 

There’s no way to quantify the extent to which video-streaming harms minors’ cases. At least, not yet. Only 30 minors have been streamed into court so far, though the administration has queued up an additional 75 for inclusion in its “pilot.” Once there’s a larger sample size, we may be able to compare outcomes to those of similarly situated minors who appeared in person in the same jurisdictions. (NB: It’s “may” because obfuscation is a given.)

Video-streaming will disadvantage minors. It’s not favorable to witnesses generally, but it’s especially problematic for minors giving emotional testimony. See below an excerpt from a dissertation on the effects of videoconferencing on courtroom credibility, presented as written, cites and all, to illustrate how well-founded its conclusions are.

[R]esearch into perceptions of videotaped individuals indicates that viewing a person on screen versus live, affects how they are perceived by observers. Landström and Granhag (2010) found that children giving courtroom testimony via CCTV were judged more negatively than children appearing live when adults were asked to answer questions regarding the child’s appearance credibility, and likability. The reason for this difference in perception is attributed to the vividness effect (Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Testimonies that are emotionally interesting, image provoking, and proximate in a sensory and temporal-spatial context are considered to be vivid. This type of testimony is perceived as more credible, is paid more attention, and is better remembered than nonvivid testimony (Bell & Loftus, 1985). Live testimonies are perceived more vividly than CCTV testimonies due to the spatial proximity of the live witness.

Live witnesses are perceived more positively than remote. Testifying by videoconference also limits minors’ ability to communicate in full—via demeanor, body language, etc.—and introduces additional factors that could affect their testimony, e.g., how translation works for each side, their feelings about being on film, their inability to see what’s going on in the rest of the courtroom, their reactions to who’s capturing them on video, and so on. The AP reports that some become so frustrated they simply “give up.”

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