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New Report Examines Weaponization of Immigration Court System

Advocates Launch Immigration Court Watch App to Ensure Greater Accountability, Transparency.

WASHINGTON, DC – The immigration court system has failed to fulfill the constitutional and statutory promise of fair and impartial case-by-case review, according to a new report released today by Innovation Law Lab and the Southern Poverty Law Center, entitled The Attorney General’s Judges: How the U.S. Immigration Courts Became a Deportation Tool.

Download the press release here.

The report, based on over two years of research and focus group interviews with attorneys and former immigration judges from around the country, links the current crisis of accountability to the Attorney General’s absolute control over the immigration court system.

In conjunction with the report, the groups also announced the launch of an Immigration Court Watch app, which enables court observers to record and upload information on immigration judge conduct to create greater judicial accountability.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the attorney general is required to create an immigration court system in which independent judges decide cases by applying law to the evidence on the record following a full and fair hearing. According to the report, however, today’s immigration courts are plagued by systemic bias and neglect.

“Despite the life-and-death stakes of many immigration cases within the current system, case outcomes have less to do with the rule of law than with the luck of the draw,” said Melissa Crow, Southern Poverty Law Center senior supervising attorney. “Under the Trump administration, the attorneys general have gone even further by actively weaponizing the immigration court system against asylum-seekers.”

The report explains how the Office of Attorney General has created an immigration court system that is biased, inconsistent and driven by political whims. It also examines the conflict that arises when immigration judges, who are expected to be neutral arbiters, are supervised by the United States’ chief law enforcement officer who prioritizes deterrence and deportation of immigrants, instead of an impartial review process.

The report recommends removing the immigration courts from the attorney general’s control and recreating them as Article I courts. To ensure that immigration judges are insulated from political pressures, they must be selected based on merit, receive tenure and be removed only for good cause. The immigration courts must also include more effective mechanisms of internal and appellate accountability.

“One of the key factors driving the immigration court crisis is the failure of judicial accountability,” said Stephen Manning, executive director of Innovation Law Lab. “The new Immigration Court Watch app addresses that lack of accountability, ensures greater transparency and will be a valuable resource for collecting and storing usable data on the pervasive abuses in the immigration court system.”

The new tool will allow data on immigration judge conduct to be gathered and stored in both individual and aggregate forms. This will provide advocates with valuable information to fight systemic patterns of bias and other unlawful court practices. This data can be used to bolster policy recommendations, advocacy and legal strategies.

Advocates, attorneys and other court watchers are encouraged to access the app available here.

“By establishing a presence in immigration courts within their communities and sharing their observations and information, advocates can help us leverage the power of technology, collaboration and strategic alignment to create the first interconnected information system which captures data about due process issues in U.S. immigration courts in real-time,” Manning said.

The report can be found here.

For more information, contact:

Marion Steinfels / 202-557-0430

Ramon Valdez / 971-238-1804

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, DC, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, visit

Innovation Law Lab is a nonprofit organization dedicated to upholding the rights of immigrants and refugees. By bringing technology to the fight for justice, Law Lab builds power for lawyers, human rights advocates, and immigrants in hostile immigration court jurisdictions, remote immigration detention facilities, and along the U.S.-Mexico border. For more information, visit

Judge rules NORCOR violated Oregon law

Court finds that NORCOR assisted ICE in a manner that violates ORS 181A.820; finds detention contract not prohibited


February 8, 2019


Erin M. Pettigrew, Innovation Law Lab,, 971-612-0540

Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, Innovation Law Lab,, 971-801-6047

The Dalles, Oregon – In a decision issued today, Judge John Wolf of Wasco County determined that two of Northern Oregon Regional Corrections’ (NORCOR) immigration enforcement practices are illegal under Oregon’s disentanglement law, ORS 181A.820, often referred to as Oregon’s sanctuary statute and the first law of its kind in the nation.

First, the court took issue with NORCOR’s practices of notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when a person is scheduled to be released from the local jail. The court determined that “[t]he record in this case establishes no purpose for the release notifications except for the purpose of detecting and apprehending persons in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws.”

The court went on to conclude that the jail’s allegedly discontinued practice of holding individuals beyond their release date for ICE is likewise illegal under state law. The court reasoned, “re-seizure or subsequent seizure occurs when an inmate remains in jail after the original basis for incarceration ceases to exist.” Therefore, NORCOR must release the individual as required under state law, and to do otherwise violates ORS 181A.820, said Judge Wolf.  

The trial court held, however, that NORCOR’s contract with ICE to “accept and provide for secure custody” of persons detained for federal immigration enforcement does not violate ORS 181A.820, nor does its policy of notifying ICE of the presence of a foreign-born person upon booking on state or local charges. With respect to the contract, the court determined that the term “apprehend” in the statute “is not commonly understood to mean holding someone in jail or prison.” The court went on to conclude that notifying ICE of the presence of foreign-born persons in the jail did not violate Oregon law because those persons may have violated other state laws and because there is an exception to the statute for exchanges of information to verify immigration status.

Though NORCOR argued the Plaintiffs lacked standing, the trial court disagreed, ruling that the Plaintiffs had standing to bring suit because they had shown negative tax consequences as a result of NORCOR’s relationships with ICE.

“We are pleased with the Court’s decision that NORCOR is violating Oregon law in some respects, but disappointed by the court’s decision with respect to the ICE contract,” said Erin M. Pettigrew of Innovation Law Lab, one of the attorneys representing the Plaintiffs. “As Judge Wolf observed at the hearing, it is likely that some or all of his rulings will be appealed, as they involve issues of broad importance to Oregonians.”

Read the decision here.

Kansas City attorneys and advocates win bond for 18-year-old in immigrant detention

After receiving repeated threats from a gang notorious in Honduras, Francisco* decided to make the long journey to the United States in search of refuge. The trip was not easy — some days he went without food and, at one point, he was robbed.

Once he arrived in the U.S., he was placed in a shelter for unaccompanied minors, but because he was 18-years-old, was eventually transferred to the Caldwell County Detention Center in Kingston, Missouri. An all-adult facility, Caldwell is over fifty miles northeast of Kansas City.

Right around the same time Francisco was transferred to Caldwell, the Deportation Defense Legal Network (DDLN) was officially launched by a group of legal advocates in Kansas City with the express purpose of providing legal representation to immigrants in bond hearings.

DDLN is a truly collaborative project consisting of community organizers, immigrant rights advocates, and local attorneys. It was formed in partnership with Innovation Law Lab, the Clinic at Sharma-Crawford, Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation (AIRR), El Centro, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) MO-KAN Chapter. Participating firms include Stinson Leonard Street, Polsinelli, Lathrop and Gage, and more.

Working with AILA attorneys, DDLN trains non-immigration attorneys to take on bond representation before the immigration court. Using the LawLab platform, DDLN collects referrals of bond-eligible cases from local immigration attorneys, organizations, and churches to facilitate case placement and assist in case management during the length of the case. DDLN also engages pro bono attorneys, interpreters, and community members to support and assist families impacted by ICE arrests.

Francisco’s family could not afford private legal representation. Without legal representation, an immigrant’s chances of winning release from detention and having a favorable bond set are unlikely.

When DDLN learned of Francisco’s case, they placed his bond case with a pro bono attorney. With the help of volunteer interpreters and remote volunteer legal assistants, the attorney was able to successfully argue for Francisco’s release from Caldwell.

Francisco’s bond was set at $3,000, a relatively low amount that may not have been possible without legal advocacy. After the bond was set, Free Our Neighbors, a NATIONAL advocacy organization, mobilized to cover the cost of his bond and a local pastor offered him a temporary place to stay until he could travel to meet his family in the United States.

Since Francisco’s bond was granted in mid-July, DDLN volunteers have successfully won bond for five individuals — a sign that the coordinated legal advocacy made possible by DDLN is working. And not only is DDLN set on winning individual cases, but along the way, aggregating data about detention conditions, bond amounts, judge decisions. This data will contribute to an even larger narrative of what the immigration court system looks like locally and nationally and help us focus in on hostile jurisdictions.

After leaving Caldwell, Francisco shared with Ramón Valdez, Innovation Law Lab program manager, that he looks forward to continuing his schooling and finding a job in construction.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

If you live in the Greater Kansas City region and would like to be part of the Deportation Defense Legal Network, please contact Ramón Valdez, Program Manager, at

NORCOR case moves forward

On Wednesday, July 11, Innovation Law Lab and the Oregon Law Center secured a victory in their ongoing case against the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR), signaling progress in a larger suit which seeks to end the detainment of immigrants in the Oregon facility.

“Today Plaintiffs in the case against NORCOR secured a victory in their progress toward a Court ruling on NORCOR’s violations of ORS 181A.820,” said Erin Pettigrew, Rights Attorney at the Innovation Law Lab. “The Court affirmed Plaintiffs’ right to seek information about the individuals that NORCOR detects and apprehends and how they are treated in the jail, while denying NORCOR’s attempt to stall complete resolution of the case.”

Specifically, Plaintiffs won a motion to compel NORCOR to disclose certain documents pertaining to the individuals detained at the facility. While NORCOR argued that a federal regulation prevented the public disclosure of information of this kind, the court agreed with Plaintiffs that the regulation applied to public records requests and other public disclosures, not litigation requests for discovery. However, acknowledging privacy concerns, Plaintiffs did propose a protective order that would prevent public disclosure of personally identifying information, which the Court approved.

The Court also denied NORCOR’s motion to bifrucate the case. NORCOR sought Court approval to answer first whether they indeed “detect or apprehend” immigrants and then, later, engage in discovery and fact finding on the fiscal impact of that activity. The Court denied the motion, asking whether there was any equipment that did not belong to NORCOR that was used in their facility. Unable to answer to the contrary, the Court denied NORCOR’s motion and the case will proceed on all issues.

This victory signals progress in the larger effort to end the relationship between NORCOR and ICE and meaningfully affirm Oregon’s status as a sanctuary state.

In attendance at the hearing were members of Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIrJ), Rural Organizing Project (ROP), and Gorge ICE Resistance. Plaintiffs Stovall, Olmstead and Krummrich are represented by Erin M. Pettigrew and Stephen Manning, Innovation Law Lab; Plaintiff Brown is represented by Stephen Walters and David Henretty, Oregon Law Center.

Asylum Seekers Denied Access to Lawyers at Federal Prison in Oregon

One hundred and twenty three asylum seekers are being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a federal prison in Oregon without meaningful access to attorneys in violation of the U.S. Constitution, federal immigration laws, and international treaties said lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon (ACLU of Oregon) and Innovation Law Lab. The groups today sent a letter to ICE outlining their concerns for the detainees’ rights. The Oregon detainees, all men, are among the 1,600 immigrants marked for expedited deportation that the Trump administration sent to federal prisons in five states in an unprecedented move last week.

“Detention should never be used to punish or deter a person from applying for asylum to save his life,” said Stephen Manning, immigration attorney and executive director of Innovation Law Lab. “It is a core principle of the United States that no person in this country should be imprisoned without due process of law.”

In the letter, the groups say that while the courts decide the fate of these men’s asylum claims, ICE must ensure that the federal prison at the very least complies with the current civil detention standards.

Last week, lawyers with Innovation Law Lab and the American Immigration Lawyers Association Oregon Chapter sent a letter to the prison warden offering pro bono lawyers for the detainees. The volunteer lawyers were able to meet with some detainees yesterday, but were not allowed to see detainees this morning and have been denied access through the weekend.

The groups say the detainees being held in Oregon are men from different countries around the world including India, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Ukraine, Guatemala, and Mexico. Many of the detainees applied for asylum at points of entry along the southern border of the U.S. Some of the men reported being forcibly separated from their partners and children and lack information about their family members’ whereabouts.

“There should be no deportations until all one hundred and twenty three men have meaningful access to lawyers,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director of the ACLU of Oregon. “These men  presented themselves to request asylum as allowed under U.S. laws and international agreements. They are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries and they deserve their day in court.”

Dos Santos explained that it will take weeks for each detainee to meet with an attorney for an initial assessment because the federal prison only has four meeting rooms and offers extremely limited visiting hours. The detainees also cannot call lawyers and the prison’s video teleconferencing system is broken.

“People come to the United States at great personal risk seeking freedom from despots and cruelty at the hands of their government,” dos Santos said. “We cannot meet them at our borders with more of what they have fought so desperately to escape.”

A vigil is planned outside the prison on Monday, June 18 at 5:30 p.m. Details about the event are online.

The letter to ICE is online at

The letter to the warden is online at

This release is online at

Please direct inquiries to Sarah Armstrong of the ACLU of Oregon at 503.756.3147.

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