This week, Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware presided over a public hearing to discuss what so many of us know: the immigration courts are failing to provide a fair, efficient, and effective system of justice. Many of the concerns raised by Senator Coons, as well as some of the witnesses, during Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “Building an Immigration System Worthy of American Values,” are discussed in more detail in a report issued by the American Immigration Council this week, Two Systems of Justice: How the Immigration System Falls Short of the Ideals of Justice.
This report explores the various ways in which the immigration system fails to afford immigrants a day in court. For example, immigrants facing deportation have neither a right to appointed counsel, nor a right to a speedy trial. Harsh immigration laws may apply retroactively, unlawfully obtained evidence may be used to prove the government’s case, and advisals of fundamental rights are given too late to be meaningful. Moreover, many immigrants are barred from appealing removal orders to a federal judge. Given the stakes involved in immigration cases and the increasing criminalization of immigration law, the report concludes that we must no longer tolerate a system that deprives countless individuals of a fair judicial process.
Senator Coons echoed this same sentiment in his introductory remarks at the hearing. He described some of the grave injustices addressed in the report, including the lack of discretion afforded to immigration judges when making life-changing decisions about detention and deportation and the lack of adequate access to counsel. He explains:
[O]ur immigration system doesn’t allow immigration judges to consider circumstances, to balance different factors, to consider risk of flight, ties to the community, and whether or not there are U.S. citizen children who are dependent…
Immigrants, even children and those with mental disabilities, lack not just the right to appointed counsel, but also the ability to obtain badly needed documents from the government necessary to prove their cases.
Senator Coons also offered a vision for what the immigration system should look like:
We must afford a minimum level of due process consistent with our national values to those people who find themselves in an immigration system that although civil, looks in many ways like a criminal proceeding. Detention and deportation decisions should be made in the public interest and subject to independent review. Where appropriate, for immigrants with no history of violence, less restrictive alternatives to detention ought to be used to guarantee enforcement of the courts’ orders.
It is heartening to hear Senators Coons’ remarks and know that the shortcomings of the immigration court system have not gone entirely unnoticed by those with the power to change the system. Hopefully, Senator Coons’ colleagues will heed his words: “Comprehensive immigration reform cannot be truly comprehensive if it doesn’t address current flaws that deny minimum due process rights consistent with our values.”
Photo courtesy of Senator Chris Coons.