At the Fort Snelling Immigration Court, hearings are open to the public. However, few people attend these hearings to observe the realities immigrants face under our immigration and justice system. The volunteer Immigration Court Observers of The Advocates for Human Rights are changing that. They monitor the proceedings and collect priceless information about the treatment of detained immigrants and the injustice that is deeply embedded in our federal immigration system. Since the inception of the project in 2017 over 750 individuals motivated by “outrage over human rights violations,” “anger over discrimination against immigrants,” and “shame, as a taxpayer regarding unjust immigration policies” attend court and document hearings.
Over the years, several Immigration Court Observers have demonstrated extraordinary loyalty and leadership in promoting justice and human rights in immigration matters. Together, these highly committed volunteers have completed more than 900 shifts at the Fort Snelling Immigration Court. Many of them have recruited and mentored other volunteer court observers and helped grow the project to what it is today. These extraordinary advocates for immigrant rights are The Immigration Court Observer Leaders Team.
They include volunteers like Florence Brammer, Peter Frederick, Joan Naymark, Nancy Poechmann, Susan Sexton, and Amy Lange, who volunteered as a court observer and is now the Court Observation Project Coordinator for The Advocates. Many of the volunteers had no previous knowledge of immigration law. Amy Lange was a former nurse-midwife; others had careers as a college history teacher and an HR director. Immigration court observation is a way for people from all walks of life to uphold the international practice of trial monitoring and to promote human rights.
The presence of court observers holds our judges accountable and makes a difference in how defendants are treated in the courtroom. Joan Naymark, a volunteer for almost three years, states, “who doesn’t behave differently if they think someone’s watching?” Another volunteer, Peter Frederick says his goal is “to have the judges see what we see” and recognize the injustice that occurs during trials. Other volunteers explain, “I know from rare and brief conversations with the security guards and detainee’s lawyers that they know they are being watched” and “I honestly believe they would treat people with less humanity if there were not court observers present.”
Indeed, much of the Court Observers’ impact comes not from their impact on rulings, but from the emotional weight of their attendance. They are trained specifically not to interfere in the courtroom, but instead, to be “a warm and gracious presence,” as stated by Amy Lange. Their presence provides immense support for the detained immigrants and their families, sometimes through small gestures. As a court observer volunteer says, “If family members are in the courtroom, I try to smile at them and share a kind greeting. I think it’s powerful to greet the family so they can feel someone is with them or hoping for them.” Many volunteer observers make a point to let the detained immigrant know that they care about them, even if it’s just making eye contact and showing a smile.
Although court proceedings have been carried out virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteer court observers still focus on making these connections. While the detainee and judge are both in the trial via Zoom, volunteers make sure they are sitting in the front row so the person on trial can see them over video.
Besides bringing transparency and accountability to court, witnessing and documenting immigration hearings has spurred observers to action. Observers have attended public hearings, written and called elected officials, attended protests, donated to immigration related organizations and legal funds, assisted in casework, spoken to influential judges about their observations, referred cases to pro bono attorneys, and filed numerous and copious public comments in opposition to restrictive new regulations. “I hope we’re making an impact and we’re changing the feel in the courtroom. Our groundswell—we don’t have power, but we may have influence […] Ultimately, we aren’t doing this as an exercise in futility. We want the system to be improved.”
The unwavering commitment of these volunteers to court monitoring as a way to preserve due process and protect human rights is strengthening the human rights movement. It is with great honor that we present a 2021 Volunteer Award to the Immigration Court Observers Leaders Team. Thank you for changing the world for good.
Please join us on Thursday, June 24 for the Human Rights Awards Dinner to celebrate the Immigration Court Observers and all of our 2021 award recipients. RSVP on our website to receive access information.
To learn more about the project and its impact, read our recent report Bearing Witness in the Moment: Report from the Immigration Court Observation Project. The report explores how inviting the public inside the workings of the deportation infrastructure can call into question the workings of that system. The deficiencies noted by observers point to fundamental failures of U.S. immigration laws, policies, and practices to meet internationally recognized human rights standards.