Skip to main content Accessibility

SPLC: Atlanta Immigration Court judges fail to uphold ethical standards

Atlanta Immigration Court judges are failing to uphold ethical standards that ensure immigrants receive fair and impartial treatment – failures that warrant an investigation, according to the findings of a project by the Southern Poverty Law Center SPLC and Emory University School of Law.

In a letter sent to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) today, the organizations documented how judges made prejudicial statements – sometimes expressing hostility – toward immigrants in court. The letter also describes how judges disregarded legal arguments and standards, failed to provide adequate interpretation services for immigrants, and cancelled hearings with little to no notice.

The EOIR oversees the nation’s immigration courts, including the Atlanta Immigration Court, which denies asylum at the highest rate of any immigration court – 98 percent. The average bond set by its judges is typically 41 percent higher than the national average ($8,200 versus $11,637).

“Immigration judges must be impartial, but our findings show that Atlanta Immigration Court judges regularly flout the ethical standards that govern their conduct,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “While the evidence of bias and prejudice should disturb anyone who believes in the neutrality of tribunals in this country, it can be a matter of life or death for the immigrants who appear in front of these judges.

“A 98 percent denial rate on asylum applications – compared to a national average of 57 percent – means that some of these men, women and children are almost certainly being sent home to die. The judges must be held accountable.”

The findings are based on court observations conducted by Emory University law school students over a seven-week period in the fall of 2016 as part of the SPLC’s efforts to ensure transparency and accountability in the nation’s immigration court system.

The students observed proceedings involving 196 respondents and five judges, offering a look into a court system that, despite being open to the public, is rarely attended by anyone other than immigrants, their families and lawyers.

“These observations confirm the Atlanta Immigration Court’s reputation as a system where judges fail to respect the rule of law,” said Professor Hallie Ludsin of Emory Law School, who led the law students in their court monitoring. “The practices that we observed suggest that these judges conduct their courts in a way that clearly discourage fair adjudications.”

The investigation found that during a hearing where Judge William Cassidy rejected a request for bond, he compared an immigrant to “a person coming to your home in a Halloween mask, waving a knife dripping with blood.” In a private conversation after a case, Cassidy told an observer for the project that the United States should be more like Russia, noting that “if you come to America, you must speak English.” Cassidy also said his cases involve people “trying to scam the system” and that none of them want to be citizens.

Immigration Judge Jonathan Pelletier responded to a courtroom discussion between attorneys about a point of law by saying, “I won’t listen” – indicating a disregard for the basic principles of law. Nearly all observers of Judge Earle Wilson’s courtroom reported that during hearings he routinely leaned back in his chair, placed his head in his hands and closed his eyes. He held this position for more than 20 minutes as a woman seeking asylum described the murders of her parents and siblings.

The project also found that interpreters were not always available for people appearing before the court. Other times, interpreters translated an immigrant’s statements, but not what was said by others. Immigrants were sometimes provided a summary of what happened after the hearing, effectively preventing them from participating in court. Judge Michael Baird completed a bond hearing without an interpreter present for a Portuguese-speaking immigrant.

Last-minute cancellations of proceedings are another issue. Judges often failed to notify the immigrants appearing before the court, the attorneys, court clerks or detention center staff of cancellations. Many immigrants must travel a significant distance to these hearings and pay attorneys for their time despite a cancellation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys and interpreters are also inconvenienced by such cancellations.

“We must have confidence that our immigration courts ensure due process and fairness,” said Eunice Cho, SPLC staff attorney. “Unfortunately, these findings suggest that is simply not the case in the Atlanta Immigration Court.”

The SPLC will soon expand its immigration court observation with the launch of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, which will provide pro bono legal representation to immigrants detained in the southeastern United States. Observation of other immigration courts will be one component of this initiative.