For years, the Atlanta Immigration Court has denied nearly 100% of asylum claims, earning Atlanta the reputation it shares with the Charlotte and El Paso Immigration Courts: that of an “asylum-free” zone. Asylum applicants in Atlanta were 23 times less likely to receive asylum than those outside of the Atlanta jurisdiction between 2014 and 2016, and the rate at which Atlanta immigration judges deny asylum claims coincides with unfair and abusive treatment of asylum seekers, their attorneys, and witnesses.
Georgians have decided that enough is enough. In the past several years, Georgia’s immigrant rights community has launched a workshop for unrepresented asylum seekers, a bond project for immigrants in detention, a sanctuary program for immigrants in Atlanta, an asylum appellate project, an organizing platform for immigration attorneys, and fundraising efforts to expand existing NGOs’ capacity to represent asylum seekers. And now, Georgians have come together to hold Atlanta’s most hostile immigration judges accountable by participating in the piloting of an Immigration Court Watch program.
Observers in Atlanta’s immigration court have witnessed the cold, callous treatment of traumatized asylum-seeking families as they tell their stories of harm. Parents are often reprimanded for their children’s tears during proceedings. Judges have forced respondents to discuss the details of their claims in front of public audiences, retraumatizing the respondents and threatening their privacy. Attorney testimonies confirm that when judges are not disinterested in the testimony of the asylum seekers before them, they are often explosively aggressive, intimidating, and discriminatory, and they have openly discouraged asylum seekers from pursuing their claims. Meanwhile, when complaints are filed with the Executive Office of Immigration Review, they are met with a template response, simultaneously dismissive and opaque. “You’re complaint has been received. Rest assured that it has been dealt with appropriately.” With no meaningful actions taken.
If the Executive Office of Immigration Review will not hold the judges in an immigration court accountable, the community will. It starts with exposing these kinds of behavior, understanding which judges live up to the standards of their position and which judges refuse to do so, and sharing these observations with the world outside immigration court.
The Immigration Court Watch tool offers a platform for recording those observations and comparing them to observations made in immigration courts across the country. The tool will train and educate volunteers about the laws governing immigration court, the history of those laws, and the processes that they observe on a daily basis. It will also encourage court observers across the country to share their expertise and knowledge with fledgling court watch teams in other jurisdictions.
Figures in all corners of the political spectrum readily make the claim that the immigration court system is broken. Often, that claim is followed by speculation and scapegoating. Immigration Court Watch empowers communities to name the ways in which the system fails, and to hold Immigration Courts across the US accountable for providing access to real justice. We will not continue to allow our courts to be used as tools of xenophobia and racism. For decades, the fight to promote real justice in immigration courts has fallen on the most affected communities and a handful of fierce advocates and allies. Enough is enough. Sign up to join an Immigration Court Watch program near you.