Courtroom Skype helps reunite Mexican family

A deported Mexican couple won back custody of their two US-born daughters in part thanks to testimony given over Skype, an apparent first in a US custody case.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Margarita Almaraz and Alfonso Mejia embrace their two daughters, Ashanti (c.) and Ashley (r.), upon their arrival at the airport in Mexico City on Monday. The parents were deported from the US in 2009 and could not get visas to appear in US court for their daughters' custody hearings, but were allowed to testify via Skype.

When Alfonso Mejia and Margarita Almaraz were deported from the United States to Mexico they weren’t sure if they’d ever see their two American-born daughters again.

Ashley, 4, and Ashanti, 8, had been taken into US custody in 2009 due to alleged parental abuse. Their parents were deported shortly thereafter and could not fight the abuse charges in Pennsylvania court because they were unable to return to the US.

That’s when their lawyer came up with a plan: instead of using impersonal phone testimony, the lawyer convinced a US judge to accept the live presence of both parents beamed into the courtroom via the free Internet video conferencing service Skype.

Their heartfelt testimony projected on the courtroom wall helped convince the judge in Chester County, Pa., to order Ashley and Ashanti returned to their parents in Mexico this week. They had been separated for more than two years.

Mexican immigrant rights agencies are praising the decision in a case of cross-border family separation that experts say is widespread. Many hope the acceptance of Internet phone-and-image conferencing in this trial will be used as a model for other judges reticent to allow technology into their courtroom.

While not a precedent, the ruling may help hundreds of deported Mexicans with pending legal cases who cannot pay up to $500 an hour for professional video conferencing, the parents’ lawyers say.

Deirdre Agnew, the couple’s US lawyer, said the judge was very keen on both hearing and seeing the testimony. She believes other judges in the state may be open to using the same tool.

Court documents in the closed trial were unavailable, but the parents’ Mexican lawyer, Gustavo Garcia, says the judge stressed that she could see the parents really loved their children. Both lawyers say this is the first time they’ve seen Skype used in a custody battle.

Mr. Garcia also noted that the judge asked lots of questions about privacy issues with regard to Skype. She wanted proof that no one else would be able to listen in on the closed trial, a requirement the lawyers were able to satisfy.

Over 100,000 undocumented parents of American-born children were removed from the US between 1998 and 2007, says Legal Momentum, a Washington-based legal defense fund. Some US states have put children left behind into foster care, the fund says, and parents may have a difficult time regaining custody once they are deported.

In one important case, a Guatemalan woman lost rights to her two US-born children after she was detained and deported. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the state acted improperly.

The caseload of Mexican families separated due to deportation has doubled recently for Guadalupe Chipole, the director of a Mexico City government program that grants legal aid to returning migrants.

Ms. Chipole has handled 20 cases so far this year involving couples forced to leave their American-born children behind after being deported in work-place raids or other crackdowns, compared to fewer than 10 cases in previous years. The children are often taken into state custody when no other guardian is available, she said, adding that these don’t necessarily end in trials like the abuse case.

“We are reviewing our cases to see when tools [such as Skype] can be used,” Chipole said.

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