By Kathreen Harrison and Jean Hakuzimana

The process of seeking legal asylum in the U.S. is frightening to most applicants, whose futures depend on the outcome of proceedings. The first appearance an asylum seeker has before an immigration judge is called a master calendar hearing. This is an initial hearing, during which the judge verifies basic information, and explains next steps. The initial hearing is not lengthy, but attendance is mandatory. Missing the hearing can have serious consequences.

Mardochée Mbongi

The closest court to Maine is in Boston. Until mid-2022, when many judges started allowing master calendar hearings to be held remotely, asylum seekers – every member of each family – needed to get to Boston for their master calendar hearings. Easier said than done. Because of barriers such as language, money, and familiarity with U.S. geography and transportation systems, most applicants had to rely on help – from friends, or community associations, or other support systems they could locate, such as Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and Hope Acts.

Mardochée Mbongi, President of the Congolese Association of Maine (known as COCOMaine), recounted driving back and forth to Boston numerous times in one week, taking people to their hearings. But because Mbongi and other volunteer community leaders have jobs, and the numbers of asylum seekers continue to increase, people have become increasingly challenged to provide that help.

Martha Stein, Executive Director of Hope Acts, recalled, “One week we received somewhere between 15 and 20 requests, and it was completely unmanageable. Fortunately, that was the point when we learned that most people could attend their hearing via WebEx, a secured video system.

In the past, every member of each family needed to get to Boston for their master calendar hearings. Now hearings by WebEx are allowed.

Now the challenge is to create a system to support people in understanding what the hearing is about, why it is so critically important to attend, and helping them remotely access the hearing. And time is often of the essence.

Stein explained why: “What’s been happening is the people who have arrived most recently are the ones who are getting called to hearings first … sometimes by the time someone explains to them what is on the [notice to appear] the hearing might be the very next day … and in a court in another part of the country.” At this point, the asylum seeker needs to call that court and request to do the hearing remotely. Barriers make this almost impossible to do without assistance.

Mbongi and Stein have been talking about the need to set up a central coordinating system for master calendar hearings. They say this would not be hard, and would relieve significant pressure on many partner organizations, such as ProsperityME, Maine Association for New Americans (MANA) and Maine Access Immigrant Network (MAIN) – all of which are trying to do their best, but are already struggling to provide adequate service to clients in numerous other ways.

“What COCO Maine and Hope Acts are proposing is for COCO Maine to host these WebEx meetings. They have a very nice office space, and if we could have the office staffed with somebody who could coordinate the meetings, that would take so much pressure off all of us,” Stein said. “The community would learn very, very fast that this is the place to go, and we would be taking a big risk off people – the risk of not making it to their hearing on time, which can have terrible consequences. So, we are advocating to get a position funded.”

Mbongi said that other than a funded position, what is needed are laptops with webcams, as well as headphones. The COCO Maine office has two small private office spaces as well as a central room, so space is already available.  

Stein appealed to the public to help solve this problem. “This is something that is doable. Surely there is someone out there who can step up, or a business, and recognize how important this is and want to pitch in and help us in this small – but also very big – way.”