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SPLC files complaint against immigration judges at Georgia detention center

Immigration judges at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia have discriminated against Central American immigrants representing themselves in legal proceedings by making disparaging comments and suggesting that they have no valid claims to asylum or other immigration relief before hearing their cases, according to a complaint filed by the SPLC today.

Based on reports from detainees and local advocates, the complaint also describes how judges at the facility in Lumpkin failed to inform the detainees of their rights and provide necessary legal forms – violations of their right to due process. The detainees have reported that in some cases, they were not permitted to bring paper and pen or pencil to their legal proceedings to take notes – a practice the SPLC and Human Rights First, which joined the SPLC in filing the complaint, have not found in any other immigration court in the country.

The findings are the result of a visit with more than 120 detainees at the facility where only 6 percent of detainees were represented by attorneys between 2007 and 2012, according to the complaint filed with the U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. Many of the immigrants at the facility are fleeing persecution in their home countries. The SPLC has worked with local advocates to ensure the rights of the detainees are respected.

“There’s little reason for these detainees without counsel to believe they’ll be given a fair hearing at the Stewart Detention Center,” said Eunice Cho, SPLC staff attorney. “The behavior they’ve described violates their rights and undermines credibility in the legal system there. It must stop.”

Reports by detainees in the complaint describe how Immigration Judge Saundra Arrington had immigrants with attorneys sit on one side of her courtroom while those without attorneys sat on the other side. In off-the-record remarks, she told the group without attorneys that people from Central America won’t receive immigration relief. The remarks were made before she heard their cases. Such behavior violates ethics rules for immigration judges, according to the complaint.

Many detainees also reported that they were not aware of the existence of a “Legal Orientation Program” at the detention center that provides information about court proceedings and their rights. The few detainees aware of the program said they could not find sign-up sheets in their units.

The complaint also notes that judges at the facility frequently set prohibitively high bonds, leaving many immigrants languishing in detention solely due to their inability to pay. Studies have shown that immigrants who are able to bond out of detention are significantly more likely to obtain counsel and immigration relief.

The SPLC and a coalition of civil rights activists and legal experts raised other concerns about the facility earlier this year. In a letter to federal and local officials, the groups described how immigrant detainees had been denied communication with their attorneys by the facility’s for-profit prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America.

“Our legal system is grounded in principles of fairness, equal treatment and due process of law – principles which are violated on a regular basis at Stewart Detention Center, according to the reports we have received,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “No one is above the law – not the judges we entrust with enforcing immigration law, nor the private companies who manage these facilities. We will not stand idly by as rights are violated.”