OPEN COURTS -- Jacqueline Stevens, an associate professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reports in The Nation, "You don't need to go to Iran or North Korea to find secret courts. They're alive and well right here in the United States."
On March 26, 2009, I was denied access to immigration courts in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, even though a federal regulation states, "All hearings, other than exclusion hearings, shall be open to the public" with a narrow range of exceptions—none of which were cited as a reason for excluding me.
I'd heard horror stories about mass hearings and the humiliation of detainees by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys and judges, and I wanted to see for myself. But a guard told me only family members or attorneys could be admitted. An attorney in the lobby affirmed the legality of my request and invited me to attend his hearing. After waiting forty-five minutes and missing his hearing, I was told by the head of security to go to my car and call Eloy's ICE office. That's when I learned that detention centers across the country were restricting public access to immigration courts.
In an interview, Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and chair of the House subcommittee overseeing immigrant rights, expressed concern about the public's exclusion from immigration courts in detention centers. "A federal regulation requires proceedings to be open. The public has a right to attend these hearings under this regulation and any limit of this is in violation of this regulation," with the exceptions, Lofgren noted, of restrictions imposed at the discretion of the judges—for asylum claims, cases of sexual abuse or at the request of the respondent.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), an agency in the Department of Justice charged with managing immigration courts, reports that in 2008 its judges decided 134,117 deportation cases, of which 48 percent were for detainees. The individuals facing deportation hearings in these remote sites—far from their families, indigent and without attorneys—are the most legally fragile population in the country. The least the government can do is follow the law and allow public access to the courts. ICE is physically barring entry into the immigration courts in detention centers, but the real culprit is the EOIR. If that agency, under the Department of Justice, cannot arrange to allow the public into immigration courts in detention centers, then the Justice Department should house the courts in other facilities.
Mary Naftzger, a member of the Chicago New Sanctuary Coalition who frequently attends immigration hearings, said, "We have feedback from lawyers who say the judges are more respectful when court watchers are there." She explained that most of the respondents do not have attorneys and that judges ask them questions en masse "rather than examine their cases individually, a practice that changes once the court watchers arrive."