Oliver Laughland reports in The Guardian:
“Behind two rows of high fencing and winding coils of razor wire, and surrounded by thick forest in central Louisiana, hundreds of miles from the nearest major city, stands a newly created court the Trump administration hopes will fast-track the removal of undocumented immigrants.
Hearings take place in five poky courtrooms behind reinforced grey doors where the public benches, scratched with graffiti, are completely empty. There is no natural light. The hallways are lined with detainees in yellow jumpsuits awaiting their turn before a judge. The five sitting judges were quietly flown in by the US justice department from cities across the United States and will be rotated again within two weeks.
This is the LaSalle detention facility that, since March this year, has been holding removal proceedings for hundreds of detained migrants in courtrooms adjoining a private detention center, which incarcerates more than 1,100 men and women and has the highest number of prisoner deaths of any in America over the past two years.
The new setup is part of Donald Trump’s attempts to ramp up deportations by vastly expanding the arrest powers of federal immigration enforcement and prioritising more vulnerable groups of detained migrants in new court locations around the country. It has received little scrutiny since its introduction following a presidential order in January, and the Guardian is the first news organisation to observe proceedings here.
Inside courtroom No 2, during proceedings last Wednesday, Judge Arwen Swink, who usually sits in San Francisco, presided over a crowded morning docket. In an indication of the hastily arranged nature of the setup, the judge’s name was printed out on a piece of paper and stuck to a door behind her, the courtroom also functioning as a makeshift office, complete with a photocopier and in-trays attached to the wall.
Marcos Ramirez Jr, sat alone before the judge, listening through a headset as a translator interpreted proceedings in Spanish. The court heard how the Guatemalan national had lived in America for almost four decades after crossing the border into the US in 1980. He had been with his wife in Alabama for 15 years and had no criminal history.
In April, Ramirez was apprehended by law enforcement for allegedly driving recklessly and without a license. The charges were enough to see him transferred to immigration detention. At a hearing earlier in May, he had been offered a bond of $7,000 but told the court on Wednesday he had no ability to pay it.
“It has been two weeks since I heard from my wife,” he said, his head cradled in his hands. “She has stage three cancer.” Ramirez had no idea if she was now in hospital or, by extension, whether she was alive or dead.
As things stood, without the money to pay for his bond, he would remain in detention until his full hearing, known as a merits hearing, where his chance of being ordered to be deported was much higher than if he had been released on bond and gone to trial at another non-detained court, according to studies of official data.
This building is operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and had never functioned as a court. Before March, the five rooms were used for video conferencing, allowing detainees to appear via video-link in preliminary hearings at an established immigration court (that now technically administers the court at LaSalle) in the small city of Oakdale 90 miles away.
Lawyers and advocates say the new system increases the risk of due-process violations as cases move more rapidly through the system, at a remote venue that already has the lowest rate of legal representation for detainees in the US. The union representing immigration judges, meanwhile, argues that reassigning judges from around the US where courts are already chronically overburdened is simply a waste of resources.
The justice department’s executive office for immigration review (EOIR), which administers America’s immigration courts, declined to respond to a list of detailed questions about the new court.
The Guardian was also prevented from viewing the LaSalle court’s public docket, which had previously been printed out and displayed outside the courtrooms but removed on the day of the visit. The Guardian was instructed by a court officer, employed by private security firm GEO Group, that court clerks and administrative staff – public employees – would not take any questions for clarification. This meant that basic fact-checking, including the spelling of detainees’ names, could not always be completed.
Deportation without representation
In a number of ways, Ramirez’s story was typical of many of the 43 cases brought before judges that day.
Numerous hearings observed by the Guardian last Wednesday involved people who had been apprehended by law enforcement after allegedly committing minor traffic offenses. One individual, Osmani Radiya, appearing before Judge Patrick Savage, also on detail from San Francisco, had been arrested after accidentally reversing into a parked van allegedly under the influence. The father of three, two of his children US citizens, had no driver’s license or insurance documents and wound up in detention facing deportation.
Another, 21-year-old Diego Garcia, who appeared before Judge Margaret McManus (detailed from New York), had been picked up in Arkansas after driving without a license and providing a false name to police. “I’d like to apologise for what happened, it won’t happen again,” Garcia told the court. Both men were granted bond.
In the Trump administration’s first 100 days the number of immigration arrests have soared, with the sharpest increase among those with no criminal record. The LaSalle detention facility, which holds both men and women, serves as a major hub for arrestees from many of the southern states.
Paul Scott, an immigration attorney who has represented clients detained at LaSalle for nine years, characterised the new system as “taking a large mallet and trying to hit a small nail”.
“This fast-track system is now being backed up by less dangerous people who actually might have stronger cases [for relief from removal],” he said. “It’s not a very smart or precise plan.”
While the administration may have ramped up arrests, the number of people it has actually been able to deport has remained relatively consistent with the past two years of the Obama administration.
But Ramirez’s case was also typical in another manner: he had no lawyer representing him.”
Read the complete report at the link.
This should be a wake-up call for all Americans who care about Constitutional due process, fundamental fairness, and national values. American’s largest Court System is held “captive” within the U.S. Department of Justice.
In reading the testimony of former FBI Director Comey today, I was struck by his double-talk about an “independent” Department of Justice and FBI. As pointed out by Allen Dershowitz and others, the U.S. Constitution does not provide for an independent DOJ. Perhaps it should have, but it doesn’t. As an Executive Branch Agency, the DOJ is, and always has been, subject to political shenanigans. No “court system” operating within the DOJ can possibly provide fairness and due process in all cases.
Moreover, the DOJ has clearly established over the past 16 years its total administrative incompetence to run a high volume court system. 600,000 pending cases and not a clue of how they might actually be completed consistent with due process! Indeed, the officials at the DOJ who are “pulling the strings” of the Immigration Court don’t have the faintest idea of what happens at the “retail level” or how to operate a fair and efficient court system.
The Trump Administration’s misuse of the U.S. Immigration Courts to deny, rather than protect, due process is just the disgraceful end product of a “built to fail system.” America needs an independent U.S. Immigration Court.
Thanks to Nolan Rappaport for sending this my way.