On December 18, 2019, Innovation Law Lab and our partners sued in federal court to challenge the weaponization of the nation’s immigration court system to serve the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. The complaint alleged that the President, Attorney General, and other members of the executive branch have failed to establish a fair immigration court system in which Law Lab and our partners can provide meaningful legal representation to their asylum-seeking clients. The lawsuit asked the court to halt unlawful policies that undermine impartial adjudication in immigration court and to order Defendants to take corrective action to ensure that the immigration court system operates in accordance with law.

The complaint outlined pervasive dysfunction and bias within the immigration court system, including:

  • Areas that have become known as “asylum-free zones,” where virtually no asylum claims have been granted for the past several years.
  • The nationwide backlog of pending immigration cases, which had surpassed 1 million — meaning that thousands of asylum seekers must wait three or four years for a court date.
  • The Enforcement Metrics Policy, which imposed case completion goals and case timelines, giving judges a personal financial stake in every case they decide and pushing them to deny more cases more quickly.
  • The “family unit” (“FAMU”) court docket, which stigmatized the cases of recently arrived families and rushed their court dates, often giving families inadequate time to find an attorney and prepare for their hearings.

The lawsuit was filed in the District Court for the District of Oregon on behalf of Plaintiffs Innovation Law Lab, Southern Poverty Law Center, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), and Santa Fe Dreamers Project (SFDP). Counsel for Plaintiffs were Innovation Law Lab and Southern Poverty Law Center, with pro bono support from Perkins Coie LLP.

UPDATE: On December 27, 2021, Judge Immergut dismissed our remaining legal claims without prejudice.

Las Americas v. Biden began with a simple idea that is expressed in the first two sentences of the complaint: “In the American tradition of justice, judges are supposed to be impartial. Under principles dating back to the founding of the nation, judges are insulated from political power and play a role distinct from that of prosecutors . . . Not so in the immigration courts of the United States, where judges answer to the nation’s chief prosecutor, the Attorney General.”

This simple idea was the legal theory behind Las Americas. As counsel, our hope was that this lawsuit would help correct the pervasive dysfunction and bias within the immigration court system. Through our litigation, we asked the government to answer some uncomfortable questions about our immigration court system: What does it mean to have an immigration court deny nearly 99 percent of cases and order the detention and deportation of nearly everyone? What does it mean to be in an asylum-free zone? Why is there such a wide gap between the ideals that this nation stands for and the realities that play out before immigration judges?

We knew that launching this suit was about creating a confrontational platform — a place where we would directly confront the wrong, confront the reason for the wrong, and explain the way to make it right.

Over the course of the lawsuit, our team pushed forward inside and outside the courtroom to challenge the fundamental injustices of the immigration court system. Our efforts had meaningful results:

  • On March 27, 2020, we filed an emergency motion demanding that the immigration courts take appropriate measures to protect the health of immigrants, attorneys, court staff, and the public without jeopardizing the rights of people in removal proceedings. The court ultimately denied the motion on legal grounds. However, after notifying the Trump administration that we were seeking the emergency court order, the government radically shifted its approach and, within days, announced that it would further postpone all non-detained hearings, amended a long-standing rule prohibiting electronic signatures on filings, and authorized limited forms of email filing at all U.S. immigration courts.
  • On July 31, 2020, we survived the government’s motion to dismiss. In the court’s order, Judge Immergut recognized that our complaint presented “plausible evidence of systemic bias” in the immigration courts, including “the unusually high rate of denials for asylum petitions in some courts, the extreme backlog in the system, strict case-management guidelines, and policies that require judges to fast-track certain cases”.
  • In May 2021, the Biden administration announced the rescission of the family-unit (“FAMU”) docket. Our case had squarely challenged this policy, which stigmatized the cases of recently arrived families and rushed their court dates, often giving families inadequate time to find an attorney and prepare for their hearings. Unfortunately, the rescission was accompanied by the announcement of a new expedited “Dedicated Docket,” which has created a similar process that undermines asylum-seeking families’ rights.
  • In October 2021, the Biden administration abolished Trump-era case completion quotas for immigration judges. Our case had challenged these damaging performance metrics, which encouraged deportation at all costs and severely undermined individualized, neutral case-by-case adjudication.

Despite these meaningful developments, on November 24, 2021, Judge Immergut dismissed our core legal claims that had demanded that immigration courts operate in accordance with law and uphold impartial adjudication. This decision led our coalition to conclude that this litigation could no longer serve as a vehicle for the needed transformation of the immigration court system. On December 22, 2021, we stipulated to the dismissal of our remaining claims, without prejudice.

Although the Las Americas case has come to an end, our fight for a fair, impartial immigration system continues. We remain emboldened to pursue immigration court reform and grateful for the partnerships cultivated through this case.

Our efforts to transform the immigration court system thus persist. In February 2022, Representative Zoe Lofgren introduced landmark legislation that would significantly reform the U.S. immigration court  system, moving it outside the ambit of the Attorney General as an independent “Article I” court. While the introduction of this bill is merely the first step in a long and uncertain Congressional process, it reflects sustained advocacy from Innovation Law Lab and Las Americas partners, including our 2020 and 2022 statements submitted to the House Judiciary Committee and our in-depth report outlining recommendations for a better immigration court system. We remain determined and hopeful that the immigration court system will one day become a system of justice deserving of the name.