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New report examines weaponization of immigration court system

The U.S. immigration court system has failed to fulfill the legal promise of fair and impartial case-by-case review, according to a new report released today by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Innovation Law Lab.

The report The Attorney General’s Judges:  How the U.S. Immigration Courts Became a Deportation Tool – is based on over two years of research and focus group interviews with attorneys and former immigration judges from around the country and links the current crisis of accountability to the attorney general’s absolute control over the immigration court system.

In conjunction with the report, the groups also announced the launch of an Immigration Court Watch app, which enables court observers to record and upload information on immigration judge conduct to create greater judicial accountability.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the attorney general is required to create an immigration court system in which independent judges decide cases by applying law to the evidence on the record following a full and fair hearing. According to the report, however, today’s immigration courts are plagued by systemic bias and neglect.

“Despite the life-or-death stakes of many immigration cases within the current system, case outcomes have less to do with the rule of law than with the luck of the draw,” said Melissa Crow, Southern Poverty Law Center senior supervising attorney. “Under the Trump administration, the attorneys general have gone even further by actively weaponizing the immigration court system against asylum-seekers and immigrants of color.”

The report explains how the Office of Attorney General has created an immigration court system that is biased, inconsistent and driven by political whims. It also examines the conflict that arises when immigration judges, who are expected to be neutral arbiters, are supervised by the United States’ chief law enforcement officer who prioritizes deterrence and deportation of immigrants, instead of an impartial review process.

The report recommends removing the immigration courts from the attorney general’s control and recreating them as Article I courts. To ensure that immigration judges are insulated from political pressures, they must be selected based on merit, receive tenure and be removed only for good cause. The immigration courts must also include more effective mechanisms of internal and appellate accountability.

“One of the key factors driving the immigration court crisis is the failure of judicial accountability,” said Stephen Manning, executive director of Innovation Law Lab. “The new Immigration Court Watch app addresses that lack of accountability, ensures greater transparency and will be a valuable resource for collecting and storing usable data on the pervasive abuses in the immigration court system.”

The new tool will allow data on immigration judge conduct to be gathered and stored in both individual and aggregate forms. This will provide advocates with valuable information of misconduct by immigration judges to fight systemic patterns of bias and other unlawful court practices. This data can be used for policy recommendations, advocacy and legal strategies.

Advocates, attorneys and other court watchers are encouraged to download the app here.

“By establishing a presence in immigration courts within their communities and sharing their observations and information, advocates can help us leverage the power of technology, collaboration and strategic alignment to create the first interconnected information system which captures data about due process issues in U.S. immigration courts in real-time,” Manning said.

Photo by Colleen McGrath/ AP Images