Up Close and Personal

When it comes to overseeing deportation hearings, the caseloads heaped upon federal immigration judges are almost too heavy to bear. An overwhelming number of immigrants need their cases decided. As a result, judges spend most of their time on the road, traveling to out-of-the-way prisons and detention centers where most detainees are housed.

"In a lot of cases, a judge will only get to a particular prison once a month or sometimes once every two months," explains Lynn Petersburg, deputy associate director of information at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Executive Office for Immigration Review (OIR). "So in a lot of cases, aliens are spending long periods of time waiting to have their day in court."

A pilot program testing the benefits and possibilities of videoconferencing may be the solution to this customer service dilemma. Videoconferencing-which allows two-way audio and two-way video across television monitors or desktop computer systems-has cut down on judges' travel time. More importantly, it allows judges to hear more cases in a shorter span of time.

Room-based systems have already been installed at OIR headquarters in Falls Church, Va., and its Chicago office, as well as at several prisons in Texas, Maryland and Louisiana. The systems include a main camera and television monitors at each site and a document camera and scanner at the prison. The OIR has successfully tested videoconferencing during mock trials and is now evaluating it during live hearings.

"The judges like the fact that they can be much more readily available to aliens and their attorneys and the prison officials like it as well, because it helps cut down on security risks," Petersburg says.

She notes that videoconferencing is being considered for other OIR activities as well. For instance, the technology could give immigrants in remote areas better access to pro bono attorneys who are well-versed in immigration law. Attorneys could present oral arguments before the Board of Immigration Appeals without having to travel to Virginia. And portable videoconferencing systems are expected to help the OIR respond within hours to immigration crises, including deportation or asylum cases, that often pop up with little warning along the southwestern border or in Florida.

The technology poses few concerns among OIR officials, although improvements have been requested in video quality so judges can more accurately assess an immigrant's demeanor or the authenticity of an evidentiary document. Another concern is that legal and procedural issues must be clarified before deportation hearings can be played out via television monitors and telecommunications lines. A working group made up of attorneys and operations personnel is studying whether or not interactive court hearings are appropriate in the arena of immigration law. The Ninth Circuit Court recently shot down the Justice Department on videoconferencing, ruling it is not a legal means of trying criminal behavior.

"We want to make sure that all of these issues are addressed up front, before we install the equipment," Petersburg says. "But already we can see that videoconferencing offers a lot of benefits to us, especially in the customer service area. Most importantly is the general improvement in our availability to the people we serve."

Closing the Gaps

Thanks to falling prices and better quality, videoconferencing has become very popular in government. It's an especially practical tool for agencies with tight budgets and high travel costs, or those who deal with foreign countries.

With videoconferencing, people from different parts of the world are now able to come together and discuss issues without leaving their offices. Employees from different regions can participate in the same courses and seminars, and trainers don't have to worry about setting up a new classroom every week. With desktop systems, managers can meet face-to-face with a colleague to write a paper together or to discuss financial matters and illustrate their positions on a master spreadsheet.

"Once a videoconferencing meeting kicks off, you become totally unaware that it's a virtual meeting," says Audrey S. White, chief of the National Park Service's telecommunications section. "The dynamics of a real meeting are inherent in the system. You're looking at the person who's talking. You're observing the facial expressions, the body language, the attitude. It truly becomes a real-time meeting to everyone who's involved."

Although most people traditionally think of videoconferencing as a meeting tool, agencies have devised unique applications, including the following:

n Engineers at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming are testing portable videoconferencing systems so people in the office can help employees sent out to the field to inspect missile sites.

n Army medical personnel can now send video images of soldiers injured in battle back to U.S.-based Army medical centers so surgeons and specialists can observe the patient, assess the severity of injuries, make a diagnosis and instruct medics on how to perform emergency surgery.

n Videoconferencing rooms set up by the U.S. Information Agency in major international cities for U.S. speakers to discuss issues with foreign citizens and politicians have also been used by foreign and Washington-based officials to negotiate trade and economic agreements.

n A videooconferencing network sponsored by the Energy Department allows scientists and physics researchers from around the world to collaborate on high-level scientific experiments and projects. Systems have been installed at Harvard and Princeton universities, the University of Michigan and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as numerous agency offices.

n Regional National Park Service directors used videoconferencing to speed up their restructuring plan, which included downsizing from 10 to seven regions. The directors met almost exclusively via videoconferencing each month and were able to implement the new department framework in record time, White says.

n To speed up recovery efforts in the aftermath of a natural disaster, Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors take along a portable system to show administrators and managers in Washington the destruction. By seeing the area firsthand, decision-makers can assess what response is required, send financial aid and begin reconstruction efforts faster.

Technology Improving

Videoconferencing systems can be divided into three categories: room-based (or roll-about), portable and desktop computer systems. Room-based systems are used for small and large meetings. Portable systems are available for temporary sites or field work. Desktop systems are generally used for one-on-one discussions.

Unlike television, which is one-way and transmitted across airwaves, videoconferencing is interactive via digital telecommunications lines. Standard phone lines can only handle audio, but digital lines can handle voice, data, graphics and video. Most videoconferencing systems use either ISDN (Integrated Service Digital Network), Switched 56 or T-1 lines.

During a conference, a strategically placed camera captures moving pictures of the scene in analog format, which is commonly used for television viewing. However, for videoconferencing, the picture must first be converted to digital form with a "codec" (coder/decoder). The codec then compresses the video picture and transmits it across the digital phone lines. On the other side, the codec decompresses the video and converts it back to analog form, and the pictures and audio show up on the monitor. Microphones are set up in the room to better capture sound.

A control mechanism determines who will be seen on screen during a meeting. The two types available are voice-activated and directed mode. The voice-activated mode is popular because the system automatically shifts to the person who speaks loudest. The directed mode allows the conference host to pull down a list of participants online and select which one should be viewed.

Traditionally, videoconferencing has included only audio and video transmission. However, vendors are now offering products that combine these features. Vtel Corp., for example, offers a product known as media conferencing, which allows users to annotate graphics, store slides, share computer files and send one-minute video mail messages. PictureTel includes a groupware function that allows users to collaborate on documents in real time.

While the ability to "see and be seen" is extremely useful in negotiations and discussions taking place via videoconferencing, the quality of the technology is still evolving. "It's not like watching Ted Koppel," warns Jonathan Silverman, team leader of economic security for USIA's Bureau of Information. "It's not that good and probably never will be."

Low-end systems often transmit wavy or jerky images and sound gaps, he says. Higher video quality is contingent upon resolution and the number of kilobytes transmitted per second, which determines how many frames are viewed per second.

Despite current limitations, Silverman believes videoconferencing is a boon to any agency. "You can certainly get a lot out of being able to see who you're talking to," he says. "For us, it really levels the playing field. Unlike a one-way satellite system, both sides have control over the microphones and the cameras, and as a result it really allows you to talk with people, rather than talking at people."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook