SPLC demands action on immigration judges who violate detainees’ constitutional rights

When an Atlanta immigration court judge recently heard the asylum case of a Chinese national, he asked the man if he spoke English.

When the man said, “No,” the judge said, “sounds like English to me,” and laughed.

Although an interpreter was eventually provided, most of the exchanges between the man’s lawyer, the judge and the immigration attorney were not interpreted, and the man could not understand what was happening in his case.

The episode was an example of many “serious deficiencies” that the SPLC detailed in a letter today to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that oversees the nation’s immigration courts. The letter describes several due process violations in the way immigration hearings were recently conducted at the Atlanta Immigration Courts, and it calls for the removal of one judge from the bench.

“Immigration judges are supposed to be unbiased, neutral fact finders, but our findings show that judges in the Atlanta Immigration Court seek to intimidate those who appear before them, block their access to fair representation, and prevent those who do not speak English from understanding what is happening in their cases,” said Daniel Werner, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “The people who appear before this court deserve a fair hearing, but the judges’ behavior demonstrates no commitment to giving them one. These judges not only mock the immigrants who come before them, they also make a mockery of the legal system.”

The letter comes more than a year and a half after the SPLC first notified the agency about immigration judges who violate the constitutional rights of detainees. Since then, the SPLC has written three more letters detailing abuses of detainees’ rights in court.

In 2016, the SPLC released Shadow Prisons: Immigrant Detention in the South, a report documenting extensive problems at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia and five other detention centers in the South.

The latest letter documents judges’ bias against detained immigrants, the inability of attorneys who represent immigrants to appear in court with their clients – rather than via live video feed - the intimidation of detained immigrants and their family members by judges, and the lack of language access for immigrants who have limited English proficiency.

The letter describes observations by the SPLC of Atlanta Immigration Court hearings in January and February for people who have been detained at Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a privately owned and operated facility where, at any given time, 700 people are confined in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

ICDC is located in Ocilla, Georgia, about 200 miles away from the Atlanta Immigration Court. Most people at ICDC are not transported to the court for their hearings. Instead, they attend remotely through video teleconferencing. Their attorneys, however, must appear in the actual courtroom in Atlanta, while their clients are shackled and confined in Ocilla.

Immediately before, after and during these court hearings, attorneys have no way of communicating privately with their clients because the video feed is broadcast to the full court.

“Even during actual hearings, attorneys and clients cannot lean over and whisper to one another to confer about the case,” the letter says. “The attorney-client separation interrupts the flow of communication necessary for attorneys to make moment-to-moment decisions about the proper course of action, thereby interfering with attorneys’ right to speak with clients. By foreclosing close communication, this practice also interferes with clients’ right to make decisions in their cases, and ultimately, their right to a fundamentally fair hearing.”

The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), a project of the SPLC that enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast, has presented compelling reasons to appear alongside clients at the Atlanta Immigration Court. However, the court has denied each of these motions, the letter says.

The letter also describes how Immigration Judge William Cassidy stands out for inappropriate and intimidating conduct. In one particular hearing for a Spanish-speaking woman, the letter says, the woman’s husband and two young daughters were physically in the courtroom, but she was detained and “present” only via teleconferencing.

Cassidy directed a Spanish-speaking interpreter to ask the husband whether he had status in the U.S. The husband, visibly nervous, appeared to reluctantly answer “no,” he did not have status. Until that moment in the hearing, Cassidy had not used the services of an interpreter, and he did not indicate why such a question was necessary for the ongoing proceedings.

“The only appropriate conclusion was that IJ Cassidy’s question exceeded his judicial authority and was asked to intimidate or demean the respondent’s husband,” the letter says. “IJ Cassidy was no longer acting as a judicial officer when he questioned the husband regarding his immigration status. Instead, he assumed the role of investigator and prosecutor. No judicial officer should act in such a fashion. When the judge abandons his role as an unbiased arbiter of fact and law, and becomes a prosecutor, the court contravenes its responsibilities as a neutral fact finder.”

The letter makes several recommendations: ensuring that immigration court judges and staff are adequately informed of their obligation to remain neutral; guaranteeing high-quality interpretation in the court; reviewing, investigating, and monitoring Cassidy’s courtroom to ensure compliance with due process standards; and considering the reprimand, suspension or removal of Cassidy based on his unprofessional conduct.

The latest letter is part of a broader SPLC strategy demanding that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the DOJ stop talking about the problems at immigrant detention centers, and take meaningful action to fix them.

See additional letters the SPLC has sent to the EOIR: