The immigration court system will begin to roll out an electronic filing pilot program in six immigration courts on July 16 this year, representing an important advancement for these courts that still heavily rely on paper documentation.

Currently, immigration courts generally do not permit any electronic filing. Instead, immigrants and their attorneys must submit documents related to their cases on paper by mailing or delivering them in person to the court. As a result, people sometimes miss important filing deadlines in their cases—simply because the papers are not delivered to the court on time. Now, the court system is testing a pilot program that allows certain people to submit documents online.

The new program will start with the immigration courts in San Diego, CA and York, PA in July 2018; then expand to Denver, CO and Atlanta, GA in August; and to Charlotte, NC and Baltimore, MD in September. The program will open up to other courts starting in December 2018 until the pilot ends on July 31, 2019.

Eventually, the program also may include the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which hears administrative appeals of immigration court decisions. During the pilot period, only attorneys who are registered with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and accredited representatives (non-attorneys who are permitted to practice before the immigration courts) will have the option to file case-related documents through the online system. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel prosecuting immigrants for removal will also have access to the system.

This electronic evolution in the immigration context has been a long time coming.

The federal courts began to adopt their electronic filing system, CM/ECF (Case Management/Electronic Case Files), in 1996 and e-filings for federal cases have been standard since the early 2000s.

In contrast, attorneys and accredited representatives appearing before the BIA and immigration courts have only been able to file one form electronically—the Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney or Representative. Immigrants who do not have attorneys are not allowed to file any documents electronically.

As one federal court recognized in 2011, immigrants without access to immediate online filing face “the risk of arbitrary horrendous consequences due to chance post office and delivery delays.”

The proposed electronic filing system will allow attorneys to submit documents online instantly at any time of day. They will also be able to access an online record of all documents filed with the immigration court and the BIA in a particular case. Similarly, the immigration courts will be able to provide attorneys with access to the system with decisions, orders, and notices via email.

In the long run, the immigration court system plans to make electronic filings before the immigration courts and BIA mandatory for all legal representatives. Electronic filings will be optional for immigrants who do not have attorneys.  How unrepresented individuals will access this vital e-filing system, which currently restricts use only to certain registered attorneys and representatives, remains unclear.

Regardless of whether the system is expanded to allow unrepresented immigrants to sign up, it will remain out of reach to those who have limited access to technology and the internet—and so the most vulnerable individuals facing deportation are unlikely to have an equal chance to benefit from these protections. For a group with the odds already stacked against them, inability to access this key filing tool will create another obstacle to fairness for unrepresented individuals.