Thursday, April 2, 2009
DOJ/EOIR: Secret Decision to Maintain Secret Immigration Courts
Last week I wrote about being turned away from immigration courts in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, even though federal law requires immigration courts be open to the public.
At first it seemed this might be a mistake on the part of overzealous guards. But it's not. According to Elaine Komis, Public Affairs Officer and Congressional Liason at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the EOIR has been aware for quite some time that the public has been prevented from entering immigration courts in some parts of the country, and the EOIR is happy to go along with this.
Even the architecture of the buildings suggests secrecy: the sign outside says "Eloy Detention Center" but includes no reference to the presence of immigration courts in the facility.
This all seems not only wrong but illegal. As I wrote to Komis, DOJ regulations require immigration courts be open to the public. How can EOIR justify having its courts in buildings the EOIR knows the public is not allowed to enter? The secret tribunals for the few hundred detainees at Guantanamo are bad enough, but what about secret trials for tens of thousands of US residents? (NOTE: I thought this was in a law passed by Congress, but it is actually a DOJ regulation; nonetheless these are the rules the government is supposed to follow and the EOIR is demonstrably not following its own regulation.)
The person who is usually super fast and largely helpful in responding to my queries suggested that she would have an answer. On Tuesday, March 30, in response to my following up on the query I'd written last Thursday, Komis wrote: "Please know that I’m still researching this issue with EOIR’s program experts….I’m hoping to have a response soon…Elaine"
The long-awaited response from the program experts arrived yesterday: "Regarding your query, please contact the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS/ICE Public Affairs’ HQ telephone number is 202-732-4242….Elaine"
This is of course absurd. I'd already heard first-hand the DHS policy, as I reported last week: it wouldn't allow the public into its buildings without "preapproval" that required a criminal background check and would take two weeks. At the 202 number they told me to contact Lori Haley, an ICE public affairs officer in California. She wrote back and copied Virginia Kice, an ICE public affairs officer, and Vincent Picard; Haley's note told me to talk to Picard, an ICE public affairs officer in Phoenix, who had already told me he was not aware of what the DHS policy was and would get back to me. But he didn't.
Also disturbing is that the EOIR is not disclosing the name of the person who is making the decision to keep the courts closed. In response to my query on this point, Komis said I would have to submit a FOIA query and sent me the contact information for the right office.
Didn't someone run for president with a promise of transparency? Didn't some high-placed official in the Obama administration, revoking the old FOIA policy, call for openness?
Attorney General Eric Holder, now that you've saved a rich, corrupt, Republican, ex-Senator from prison due to prosecutorial misconduct, what about making sure that tens of thousands of people who cannot afford an attorney at least have judges whose work is open to public scrutiny?
In fact, what does it tell us about these judges that they are not themselves protesting these conditions? If they cannot guarantee the respondents in their courtroom the most minimum protection of an open court, then how can we even pretend that these same judges will provide them other due process protections?
One more question: why are the same people who were unhelpful in providing information about immigration law enforcement under the Bush administration still in place under the Obama administration? President Obama isn't using Dana Perino for his press secretary, so why are Lori Haley and Virginia Kice -- two DHS public affairs officers who have been spectacularly unhelpful and apologists for the worst ICE abuses -- still the public voices for immigration law enforcement?
(Who's On First: Right now EOIR has an Acting Director, Thomas Snow, and an Acting Chief Immigration Judge, Michael McGoings, and no Deputy Director.)