Like many of us, Bruce has witnessed first-hand the patent unfairness of requiring individuals to represent themselves in U.S. Immigration Court. In this L.A. Times op-ed he urges Los Angeles to follow the City of New York’s fine example in providing effective pro bono legal representation to those whose lives and futures are on the line in Immigration Court:
“In December, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the creation of a $10 million fund to provide lawyers to immigrants facing deportation. But the parameters of the program are still being determined. In order to be effective, the program needs to be implemented soon and expanded quickly.
For defendants in deportation proceedings, the stakes can be life or death, since some face torture or worse upon returning to their home countries. This is why a fellow immigration judge, Dana Marks, once said that deportation cases are “death penalty cases heard in traffic court settings.” Many other defendants face permanent separation from their families.
Yet immigrants who cannot afford a lawyer must argue against government prosecutors. More often than not, this includes immigrants who are detained — that is, jailed — while their cases move through the courts. Detention almost always means loss of income, while lawyers cost more than the majority of immigrants can afford. A person who speaks little or no English must gather information from police officers or medical experts, submit written declarations in English or find evidence to support their asylum claims, all without access to the Internet or to affordable phone calls. There are an estimated 3,700 immigrants in detention across the greater L.A. area, according to the mayor’s office.
With one side at such a great disadvantage, it becomes much harder for judges to apply the law in a just manner, increasing the risk of flawed decisions. Especially in cases where defendants are detained, a day in court without a lawyer isn’t a day in court at all. A recent study found that detained immigrants who are represented by an attorney are five times more likely to win their cases than immigrants without representation.
A court system without lawyers is not merely unjust — it is also inefficient and wasteful. Without adequate legal representation for immigrants, judges can’t spend their time making decisions. Instead, they must constantly explain the legal process, reschedule cases and answer questions. In some instances, judges issue decisions only to cover the same ground again if the defendant is lucky enough to find a lawyer and get the case re-heard.
All this waste results in a heavily backlogged immigration court system, and nowhere more so than in California, where almost 100,000 cases are waiting to be decided. In San Francisco, for instance, an immigrant in court today will have his next hearing over two years from now.
. . . .
After 17 years on the bench, I’m troubled to see a wave of new raids that are sure to clog the dockets for years to come. But I also see an opportunity for local leaders to take a stand and provide immigrant communities with the fair and responsive representation they deserve.”
Bruce makes an important point that many outside observers miss. In addition to being inherently unfair, hearings involving unrepresented individuals are tremendously inefficient. That is, if the Immigration Judge takes to time to provide at least some semblance of due process.
Aspects of the hearing system that lawyers understand have to be explained in detail, in simplified language, through an interpreter to the unrepresented respondent.
Because there is no lawyer to question the respondent, and it would be inappropriate to rely on the DHS lawyer to present the respondent’s case, the Immigration Judge effectively becomes the respondent’s “substitute attorney” — an impossible conflict of interest. I usually conducted the examination of an unrepresented respondent using a format similar to that I used for client intake interviews in private practice. It takes time to do a fair and thorough job.
Dictating a decision in an unrepresented detained case is a long, painstaking process. Where an attorney is involved, and the interpreter is with me in court, which is the norm, the attorney normally “waives” a verbatim contemporaneous interpretation in favor of a short summary and a promise to fully explain my ruling to the client afterwards.
But, with no attorney, I must stop every few sentences for the interpreter to do a “serial interpretation” to the respondent on televideo. The “simultaneous interpretation” system is not currently designed to work with the televideo system.
Appeals by the losing side are fairly common in detained unrepresented cases. When both sides have attorneys, I just say a few words reminding them about how strictly the BIA enforces filing deadlines.
But, when an unrepresented respondent is involved, I have to give a short “how to seminar” in the art of filing an appeal with a fee waiver in a timely manner. Occasionally, the detention center doesn’t even have the correct appeal and waiver forms available, so I have to note that “officer promised to serve forms” while attaching an “insurance copy” to my “minute order” (which itself might not actually get to the detained respondent until weeks after the hearing — halfway through the 30 day appeal period).
Also, Bruce accurately points out that if the respondent finally is able to find a pro bono lawyer during the appeal process, the chances of a remand for further development of the record before the Immigration Judge are significant.
Although claiming to be supportive of the role of pro bono counsel in Immigration Court, and providing some support to some programs, overall the U.S. Immigration Court is “user unfriendly” to the pro bono community. In all Administrations, artificial political prioritization of cases driven by the Department of Justice and decisions to “kowtow” to DHS enforcement by placing so-called “courts”‘ within out of the way detention centers (rather than insisting, as true independent court system would, that detention centers be located in the vicinity of already established courts, where there is an established immigration bar and family support is often available) actively undermine both access to, and effective participation by, pro bono attorneys.
It’s sad but clear that the current Administration has “no time” for due process for migrants. They appear to have every intention of taking an already out of control, user unfriendly court system and making it even worse.
Only the Article IIII Courts stand between this Administration and their apparent goal of a “deportation express” with “no station stops” for due process. And, the only way that vulnerable migrants are going to be able to get into, and draw the attention of, the Article III Courts is by being well-represented by attorneys every step of the way.
That’s why it is critically important for Los Angeles and other cities who value their immigrant communities to heed Bruce’s call for the establishment of pro bono programs. Otherwise, the due process travesty being planned by this Administration will go forward unabated and become an indelible stain on American legal, political, and Constitutional history.
Other than that, I have no strong views on the subject.