Reflection from Immigration Court
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
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 time, work the way it's supposed to.
Watch our interview with some of our volunteer Court Observers below: