On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened as an immigration inspection station. More than 40 percent of people currently living in the United States are among, or are descendants of, the 12 million immigrants who passed through its doors.
While the facility has become a symbol of America’s history as a nation of immigrants, our current immigration system is badly broken. In a report released earlier this year, the American Bar Association described the U.S. immigration court system as facing an “existential crisis,” an “irredeemably dysfunctional” system “on the brink of collapse.”
The courts face a massive backlog of nearly 900,000 cases – more than 2,000 per judge. As The Economist outlined: “People will die of old age in America before they ever acquire the legal right to live in America. This is an extraordinary failure to govern.”
In 2017, a federal immigration judge spoke to PBS Newshour about case backlogs. At that time, 600,000 cases were pending with only 334 judges to hear them.
“In essence, we're doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting," the judge said. “We are already working at light speed, and yet the stakes for the people who are before the courts can be a risk to their very life, particularly if they are fearing persecution or other harm if forced to return to their home countries.”
New case quotas issued by the Trump administration to supposedly deal with the backlog, however, have led to judges rushing to complete cases, compromising their ethical obligations and violating immigrants’ due process rights — rights they have under the Fifth Amendment, regardless of how they entered the country.
Immigrants already face a daunting system when they finally get their day in court. Federal courts have compared the complexity of immigration law to that of the tax code. Despite this complexity, unlike in criminal court, immigrants are not guaranteed an attorney at government expense.
Legal representation during proceedings, however, makes a huge difference in outcomes for immigrants, including asylum seekers. Immigrants with counsel are more than 10 times as likely to succeed in their cases as those who represent themselves.
Even before an immigrant appears before an immigration judge, they may give up on their case, not because it is not meritorious, but due to circumstances imposed by the government. Immigrants held in detention centers may choose to withdraw their cases, physically depleted and emotionally taxed by the harsh conditions they endure for months – or even years – while locked up in these facilities, which are essentially immigrant prisons, frequently operated by for-profit companies.
Despite the problems facing our immigration system, the Trump administration has chosen to mischaracterize their suffering, choosing to spread misinformation and distrust of immigrants and asylum seekers, rather than face reality.
Immigrants are entitled to an adjudication process that honors their dignity and basic human rights. At the SPLC, we are dedicated to ensuring it happens. Our Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast. We’re also exposing abuses in this broken system and pushing for reform.
We will not allow our nation, a nation founded by immigrants, to turn its back on this generation of immigrants.
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Photo by The Washington Post/Getty Images