Hilda Bonilla writes:
“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.”
“[P]atient, dignified, courteous, . . . professional,” unfortunately does not describe the judges of the U.S. Immigration Court in Atlanta as portrayed in this study and numerous articles from various sources. As I have pointed out before, although the BIA finally did “call out” one Immigration Judge in Atlanta for his outrageous disregard of due process and appropriate judicial conduct in Matter of Y-S-L-C-, 26 I&N Dec. 688 (BIA 2015) (denial of due process where IJ tried to bar the testimony of minor respondent by disqualifying him as an expert witness under the Federal Rules of Evidence), the BIA has let this problem fester for far, far too long. Indeed, the indefensible 2% asylum grant rate suggests that the BIA has been derelict in its duty to insure due process, fairness, and compliance with the appropriate, generous legal standards in asylum cases for some time.
Without a more effective effort by the BIA, this problem is unlikely to be solved any time in the near future. While administrative judges at EOIR Headquarters in Falls Church, VA may investigate complaints and correct instances of unprofessional conduct and rudeness, they (quite properly) lack authority to change the decisions in particular cases. Only the BIA, the Attorney General, the Court of Appeals (in this case the 11th Circuit), or the Supreme Court can correct legal errors.
The conduct of the Immigration Judges in Atlanta and some other locations diminishes the efforts of the vast majority of U.S. Immigration Judges, such as my former colleagues in the Arlington Immigration Court, who strive extremely hard to provide due process and impartial judging under extraordinarily difficult circumstances in a system that its not necessarily designed and operated with due process in mind. But, unfair as as the wayward judges might be to their colleagues elsewhere, the real victims of their unprofessional conduct are the individuals who do not receive the fair, courteous, impartial, professional due process adjudications to which they are entitled under our Constitution. And, one has to ask what purpose is served by a “court” which consistently fails to deliver on its one and only mission: guaranteeing fairness and due process for all?