Waiting for Justice in Immigration Court

Rescinding Trump-era restrictions would only be a start toward radical reform.

Walter, a forty-seven-year-old asylum seeker from El Salvador, has found U.S. immigration court to be a barrier, not a pathway, to freedom.

“It feels like they are trying to convict you of something,” says Walter, who is now appealing his deportation order.

He tells The Progressive how he fled his homeland in December 2017 after MS-13 gang members, collaborating with police, tried to extort him; when he didn’t comply, they beat and hounded him.

Walter’s 2018 proceedings in Cleveland Immigration Court were made all the more problematic because he did not have a lawyer and, as he puts it, “it was never explained what I had to show to win.”

He is caught in an immigration court system that has never had the independence to give asylum seekers a fair shake. The presidency of Donald Trump made a bad situation much worse. Trump’s attorneys general, who oversaw and appointed immigration judges, issued directives that strictly limited the grounds for asylum and sharply restricted judicial discretion. These directives remain in place.

Not surprisingly, with Trump determined to deport as many immigrants as possible, the nation’s immigration court caseload more than doubled from October 2016 to this April, growing to a total of nearly 1.3 million. His legacy will linger with Trump Administration judges, according to Reuters, making up about two thirds of the 520 immigration judges in place when President Joe Biden took office. They are considered career Justice Department employees.

Asylum denials shot up from an average of 54.6 percent during the last fiscal year of the Obama Administration to 71.6 percent as Trump completed his term.

U.S. immigration courts have been especially cruel to asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico—all with much higher denial rates. But rather than Vice President Kamala Harris’s message of “Do not come,” the focus should be on why asylum seekers are treated so inhumanely.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” says Brian Hoffman, executive director of the Ohio Center for Strategic Immigration Litigation and Outreach, who is representing Walter in his appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals. “We see people going in front of judges and thinking they have a shot—thinking, surely, if I tell the judge what happened to me, he is going to give me asylum because my life is in danger.”

Sweeping relief to immigrants stuck in a court system stacked against them must come without further delay—especially since 98 percent of the cases concern immigration violations, including more than 700,000 for unauthorized entry.

Deportation is not the answer. “We need to be here,” says Jenny, a twenty-seven-year-old Ecuadorian woman, appealing her December 2018 asylum denial. “I hope things change. There are many people like me, women fleeing their situation.”

Jenny tells how she barely escaped Ecuador in 2013 because a gang leader, whose advances she rejected, was out to kill her and harm her family. Ecuadorian police refused to help and, according to Jenny, didn’t consider the stab wound she suffered from the gang leader serious enough to warrant intervention.

New York City Immigration Judge Brian Palmer, a former military lawyer and judge appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, found Jenny’s testimony credible, but still denied her asylum. He cited Sessions’s directive making it much more difficult to claim gang violence as grounds for asylum.

For full article go here.

James Goodman