The Atlanta immigration court is known as one of the worst places to be in deportation proceedings. For years, the judges have been accused of abusive and unprofessional practices and the denial rate of asylum applications alone is 98 percent.

The latest effort to document this phenomenon comes from Emory Law School and the Southern Poverty Law Center who sent a letter to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) this month regarding troubling practices in the Atlanta immigration courts. The letter was based on court observations by Emory Law students, who attended 31 proceedings between August 31 and October 14, 2016.

Observers found that the immigration judges made prejudicial statements, demonstrated a lack of courtesy and professionalism and expressed significant disinterest toward respondents. In one hearing, an attorney argued that his client should be released from detention because he was neither a threat to society nor a flight risk. In rejecting the client’s bond request, the immigration judge reportedly compared an immigrant to a “person coming to your home in a Halloween mask, waving a knife dripping with blood” and asked the attorney if he would let him in.

When the attorney disagreed with this comparison, the immigration judge responded that the “individuals before [him] were economic migrants and that they do not pay taxes.” Another immigration judge reportedly “leaned back in his chair, placed his head in his hands, and closed his eyes” for 23 minutes while the respondent described the murder of her parents and siblings during an asylum hearing.

Other critical problems include disregard for legal arguments, frequent cancellation of hearings at the last minute, lack of individualized consideration of bond requests, and inadequate interpretation services for respondents who do not speak English. The observers also reported that immigration judges often refer to detention centers as “jails” and detainees as “prisoners,” undermining their dignity and humanity and suggesting that the IJs perceive detained immigrants as criminals. Compounding this problem, detained immigrants who appear in immigration court in Atlanta are required to wear jumpsuits and shackles.

Many of these practices stand in stark contrast with the Executive Office of Immigration Reviews’ Ethics and Professionalism Guide for Immigration Judges, which state, among other things, that “an immigration judge… should not, in the performance of official duties, by word or conduct, manifest improper bias or prejudice”  and that immigration judge should be “patient, dignified, and courteous, and should act in a professional manner towards all litigants, witnesses, lawyers, and other with whom the immigration judge deals in his or her capacity.”

EOIR has been previously criticized for its lack of transparency on providing the public with information about the complaints brought up against immigration Judges, raising questions about the department’s willingness to hold its judges accountable. For these reasons, the American Immigration Lawyers Association submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on December 2016 requesting records on all complaints filed against immigration judges and how the complaints were resolved. The released records showed that many immigration judges have been accused of abusive behavior towards immigrants.

The letter concludes with recommendations that, if implemented, have the potential to significantly improve the fairness of immigration court proceedings in one of the most hostile jurisdictions in the country. These recommendations include: investigating and monitoring immigration judges at the Atlanta immigration court, requiring immigration judges to record all courtroom proceedings to ensure transparency and accountability for prejudicial statements, investigating the frequent cancellation of hearings, and ensuring high-quality interpretation and availability of sample translations of forms. It is time for EOIR to take these recommendations seriously.

Photo by Tim Evanson.