A Damning Window Inside Immigration Courts

News emerged this week about various accusations made against justices in US immigration courts. While the headlines were consumed by news that the specific identities of the justices had been accidentally disclosed, perhaps the more alarming information contained within the stories is the functioning of these courts.

Part of the Justice Department, the court’s the inner workings and decision-making basis are more secretive than other federal trials. Still, some damning details have come to life:

Some of the complaints he highlighted are disturbing. One complainant alleges that an immigration judge gave special leniency to the clients of another immigration attorney. In some complaints, immigrants allege that judges laughed at them, mocked them, and didn’t take seriously their pleas for asylum.

One complaint described a judge making “lengthy and unjustified, unprofessional lectures on how to practice law”—wasting valuable courtroom time. Another complaint described an attorney from the Department for Homeland Security trying to get an immigration judge to postpone a hearing because a lawyer for an immigrant was coughing frequently, and admitted to having the flu. The DHS attorney worried other people in the courtroom would get sick, and told the judge as much. The judge responded by spending 20 minutes berating the attorney for being “overly sensitive” to germs, and calling him a germaphobe. Documents showed multiple allegations of that judge rudely yelling at DHS attorneys.

Another attorney alleged that an immigration judge accused her of wearing perfume when she wasn’t wearing any, and also said she had tried to kill him by coming into court with a cold.

Immigrants arrive to the US seeking a new start. Many are quickly placed in dangerous, unregulated detention centers. And then this. While the harshness and length of detention to which those seeking asylum are subjected is clearly cruel, I have occasionally assumed that the judiciary acted as a check on these atrocities. These recent revelations, however, seem to hint that is not the case.

Apparently, there is a movement to relocate the immigration courts to outside the realm of control of the Justice Department. Doing so, advocates claim, would allow steps to be made to make the courts more transparent and accountable. It would also help ease the backlog of half a million cases currently facing the immigration courts, they argue.

I am skeptical. The Justice Department under Holder and Lynch failed in many ways. But it strikes me as having been rather efficient in its bureaucratic functioning. With the new Trump administration, both the administration and conceptualization of justice will face grave bureaucratic and ideological threats. Not only will we treat immigrants worse, we will also, it seems, continue to judge them unprofessionally.