After two years as an observer in immigration court, it is almost possible to get desensitized to the constant inhumanity of our deportation machinery. Every new executive order that limits the numbers of refugees, allows humans to be caged, deports people without access to a hearing, abolishes long standing grounds for asylum, and sends people back to countries where they face certain death, makes me despair that change will ever come.
As court observers with the Human Rights Defender Project, we observe hearings in immigration court as moral witnesses. We aim to bring transparency and accountability to hearings that have historically taken place out of the public view. We observe and document to shed light, to motivate ourselves through our informed moral outrage, and ultimately, we aim to help create an immigration system that upholds the dignity of all people and that is built on international principles of human rights. At times, through the relentless march of five-minute hearings, it can all seem futile.
But sometimes the stars align and the impact is measurable.
Last week I observed a hearing where a person gave up his asylum claim and asked to be deported. Yesterday I posted his bond and he is back living with his good friend and working on his asylum case.
It was the man’s second hearing. He had been given time to find an attorney but explained to the judge that he simply couldn’t afford one. He asked to be deported, stating that he found prolonged detention at the Sherburne County Jail, the largest ICE detention facility in Minnesota, to be intolerable.
“I don’t like how I am treated there. I can’t stay there any longer.”
The judge, noting the man’s previous statement on record, asked if he feared for his life if he returned to his country of birth. “Yes,” he replied, speaking through the interpreter. The judge encouraged him to fight for asylum and suggested he request, in writing, a bond hearing. He repeated his hopelessness and his lack of funds. But a friend in the courtroom for the hearing stood and said he would try to help with paperwork to try to support a motion for bond and for asylum. Both of these things are daunting to do from detention, where communication is costly and onerous, where everything needs to be translated with the help of fellow detainees if one doesn’t have English fluency, and where it is nearly impossible to get ahold of evidence needed to support the case.
The Court Observer Project has a process for referring unique cases for pro bono representation, but there are limited resources to take the cases. The need is vast, the timelines are short, and the available attorneys are stretched thin. I had no idea of the merits of his potential asylum claim, but I felt he had a strong case for bond. He has lived in the United States for nearly twenty years, has a support system, and had no criminal history whatsoever.
I referred the case to the Pro Bono Bond Project, a small but vital part of the collaboration between The Advocates for Human Rights, the Binger Center for New Americans, and Robins Kaplan. A week later, with pro bono counsel from Robins Kaplan at his side, the man appeared for his bond hearing. After hearing his case, the immigration judge set a reasonable bond. His volunteer attorney then made a referral to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit with a rotating fund for criminal and immigration bonds. They have very limited capacity, but almost immediately, Minnesota Freedom Fund responded that it could pay the bond for this case. I’m a volunteer with MFF, so I jumped at the chance to go to the ICE office myself to post the bond.
As I left the Whipple Building that beautiful sunny day, I knew that in this instance someone was gaining a measure of freedom and was having a bit of dignity restored. After watching countless cases of replete with sorrow and injustice, I took comfort in knowing that sometimes we can make a difference.
By Amy Lange, the Immigration Court Observer Project Coordinator at The Advocates for Human Rights.