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Reflection from Immigration Court

April 7, 2022

The Advocates for Human Rights Immigration Court Observation Project documents detained hearings at Minnesota's Fort Snelling Immigration Court. More than 700 volunteer court observers have documented hearings since the project launched in April 2017. As we celebrate 5 years of the Immigration Court Observation Project, we share a recent reflection from one of those observers.

Immigration Court Sketch by volunteer Nanci Olesen

This was the first merits hearing I've had the opportunity to observe, and I was pleasantly surprised by how fairly, rationally, and compassionately the proceedings unfolded. By pure coincidence, I was actually present for this person's master calendar hearing as well, and I was glad to be able to see it through to its conclusion.

The person appeared via video from prison. He had an attorney who was also appearing via webcam. They were seeking removal relief through Refugee Adjustment. He was a short time from completing a prison sentence for a drug charge and multiple DUIs. His counsel and the DHS attorney had been discussing the terms of an agreement outside of court, and both attorneys indicated that they were close to settling on terms as of this hearing. The respondent's attorney indicated that they would be willing to go forward with testimony from her client, but only if she could first have 15 minutes off the record to privately discuss the situation with him. Both DHS and the Judge agreed, and after an off the record conversation the proceedings began in earnest.

During his testimony, it became clear that all his crimes directly related to struggles with chemical dependency. He expressed genuine remorse for all his mistakes on several occasions. He had apparently taken part in a treatment program while in prison. He had a detailed plan to stay sober and become a contributing member of society upon release. His release was contingent upon a CD assessment, undergoing a treatment program, random drug tests, and other conditions. The man expressed on numerous occasions that he knew he needed to remain sober and that he had no intentions of attempting to use drugs or alcohol ever again. He indicated that he could stay at his relative's house after being released, and that family would be there to support him while he got back on his feet. He also mentioned having a young child, whom he had never met in person, and to whom he very much wanted to be a good, supportive father. Throughout his entire testimony, he consistently expressed sorrow for all the harm his alcoholism had caused and his fervent desire to get his life together.

The government attorney had only a few questions when it was her turn. She asked a few details about the man's previous attempts to get sober/seek treatment, whether he could have sought other treatment options while in prison, and the specifics of his treatment plan following his release. Finally, she clarified that the he understood that any future convictions related to his chemical dependency issues would immediately resume his removal proceedings. He indicated that he understood.

The judge then asked the man some final questions. He inquired into plans for finding work on the outside. He expressed his concern that the person might fall back into his old habits after being released, pointing out that he did not have a very good track record. However, he also made clear that he wanted to take a chance that the individual genuinely wanted to change. The judge told him that "from the moment I saw you, I saw something good in you" and that he believed he was someone who could be a good, positive member of society, a good father to his son, and a good resident of this country.

Around this point the detainee broke into tears (I was way ahead of him). The judge indicated that, given the testimony he had just heard, he was inclined to grant the detainee relief and terminate removal proceedings. The DHS attorney indicated that the government agreed and was willing to end removal proceedings to begin the Refugee Adjustment process (I did not understand the details, but it sounded like they were essentially discussing a path to a green card and permanent refugee status). The judge reiterated to the detainee that this was his last chance, and that if he were to appear before the court for similar reasons in the future, he would most likely be deported. To paraphrase his concluding remarks, the Judge said: "Please don't disappoint me. Please don't disappoint your family. Please don't disappoint society. Please don't disappoint your attorney. The government attorney has made no effort to fight this and is willing to give you another chance. Please don't disappoint them. I hope I never see you again, and I mean that in the best way possible."

Barring some unforeseen setback, this young man was released from prison and is now a free man who is no longer facing deportation. Based on all the information available to me as an observer, this was without a doubt the best possible outcome. The judge was tough and blunt, but also compassionate and fair. I was even impressed by the DHS attorney, who appeared to understand that the man had done nothing to warrant deportation. He is simply a recovering alcoholic who very much wishes to remain in recovery and get his life back together. Anyone possessing a shred of compassion who observed this hearing would agree that he deserves a chance to do so. These are trying, dark times for our country, and matters involving our immigration system in particular are especially bleak. Although I am of course fully aware there have been, and will continue to be, countless situations when similarly deserving individuals do not get a second chance. I am immensely grateful, touched, and encouraged to have seen the system, at least this one timework the way it's supposed to.

Watch our interview with some of our volunteer Court Observers below:

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