Wednesday, April 15, 2009

EOIR: Requiring Advance Notice to Attend Immigration Courts is Unlawful

A 1982 DOJ regulation requires immigration courts be open to the public, except in a limited number of circumstances determined by immigration judges. It turns out that the government is systematically violating this regulation, something I learned when I was recently turned away from immigration courts in Arizona detention centers. I later wrote about the excuses for this given by the EOIR.

Here's how the government has responded in the meantime.

In the last week, apparently in response to inquiries on immigration court access policy by a Tucson reporter Claudine LoMonaco and myself, the EOIR changed their Immigration Court Practices Manual that the EOIR spokesperson Elaine Komis referenced to me the day I was turned away.

On March 27, 2009, the day I called Komis from the detention centers, the Manual stated: "The news media shall notify the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs and the Court Administrator before attending a hearing."

On April 9, 2009, the Manual stated: "The news media is strongly encouraged to notify the Office..."

EOIR spokesperson Susan Eastwood told me they made the changes because "some people had mistakenly believed that 'shall' meant 'must' and that was never our intention." EOIR made their underlying intentions explicit, Eastwood told me, because "immigration courts are open to the public." EOIR realized that requiring the media notify their office before attending a hearing was inconsistent with this.

DHS responses to inquiries about its unlawfully restricting access to the immigration courts has been something like Orwell meets Kafka. Access means no access; documents on the web stating their policy means no documents on the web stating their policy; publicly available information means obscure lengthy documents that contain no relevant information for attending the immigration courts.

The Details
On Friday, April 3, I received the following statement in an email message from ICS public affairs officer Vincent Picard in Phoenix:
“ICE’s policy is to provide public access to open hearings that are held in secure locations by requiring the minimum safety precautions. Specifically, persons wishing to attend courtroom proceedings in secure detention centers only need to comply with ICE’s visitation requirement to submit a written request in advance to be placed on the visitation list for a specific day allowing time to check credentials and undergo a security clearance. Certain cases are closed to the public by operation of law and those determinations are made by the immigration judge.”
I replied with a number of questions. Here are the questions and replies or no replies obtained in conversation with Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokesperson in Washington, D.C.

Gonzalez prefaced her comments by saying that a "new special advisor" Dr. Dora Schriro, appointed by Secretary of the DHS Janet Napolitano, is "looking at issues dealing with detention" and "making recommendations," and that immigration court access now will be among the areas of her examination.

Gonzalez responded on the telephone by largely reading responses to the written questions I'd sent Picard on April 3; some of my questions were not addressed. I have requested a copy of the statement from which she read and have received a reply. When I'd asked about receiving this information in writing earlier, Gonzalez told me she planned to provide it to me on the telephone because this was "more personal." I asked again and she said she was reading from notes and would answer me further if I had follow up questions. I will be following up on the written questions she did not address yesterday but in the meantime, I wanted to post what I have.

Again, my questions were in writing. Her replies are verbal.

JS: The big one: How can DHS justify having a higher level of security requirements for entering immigration court proceedings in its facilities than those required by prisons and jails where court hearings are also held and the public is allowed access without advance screening? Can you please tell me who authorized this policy and can you direct me to any written government statement other than your email where it appears?

BG: "Entrance requirements to open court hearings are determined by specific requirements by detention facility and are consistent with national detention standards."

Gonzalez then referred me to the Operations Manual ICE Performance Based National Detention Standards, initially drafted in 2000. Gonzalez repeatedly mentioned this document's section on Visitation as evidence that ICE had made its access policies for visitors attending immigration courts available to the public.

And yet, this document NOT ONCE mentions immigration courts, much less rules for public access to immigration courts in detention centers, but focuses on rules for attorneys and family members who want to meet with detainees.

At one point the document states: "A live voice or recording shall provide telephone callers the rules and hours for all categories of visitation. "

None of the detention centers I have called that house immigration courts, including those at Eloy and Florence, avail callers of information on access to the courts. Clearly public visitors to immigration courts are not a category contemplated by these centers and the claim that they are open to the public is demonstrably false.

In addition to this DHS document, Gonzalez also referred me to the Executive Office of Immigration Review Immigration Court Practice Manual. This document states under the heading of 4.9 Public Access: "Hearings in removal proceedings are generally open to the public"; none of the exceptions listed refer to courts being situated in detention centers.

Under a separate heading 4.14, the manual states: " For hearings held in Department of Homeland Security detention facilities or federal, state, or local correctional facilities,
compliance with additional security restrictions may be required. For example, individuals may be required to obtain advance clearance to enter the facility."

First, as Dan Kowalski, immigration lawyer in Austin, Texas, has informed me, these manuals do not have the force of law; if they are inconsistent with regulations, as this section is, then they require revision--as the EOIR recently undertook in changing its language on journalist access. When I asked Elaine Komis and more recently Susan Eastwood about the contradiction between courts being open and access requiring "advance screening" they both said that EOIR was only stating DHS rules.

Not only is this practice violating the regulation, it is not one that is at all transparent. Leaving aside the tension between open courts and advance screening, I asked Gonzalez if she thought it reasonable for a member of the public to find minutiae in a hundred plus page document they have no reason to know even exists.

BG: "
It's no different than if you visit somewhere you've never been. You as a member of the public need to do your homework and figure out the rules, what you can bring and can't bring; for instance, cell phones and laptops are not allowed."

First, one can read the EOIR statement and still have no way of knowing the rules for showing up at immigration courts in a particular detention center, including a requirement of advance screening.

Second, even when I tried to comply with the advance screening requirement by contacting the ICE agents at the Florence Detention Center and leaving several messages, no one returned my phone calls. It was impossible for me to pursue obtaining advance screening.

Third and most importantly, planning to go to a publicly accessible court hearing should not require the advance planning of going to the Arctic Circle. It's one thing to go back to the car and drop off a cell phone, something else to return to the car and wait two weeks, which is what I was instructed. Say you read about a deportation hearing in the newspaper and want to attend, or an attorney notifies a reporter a few days in advance that a client has an interesting case the public should know about. Or say that the DOJ wants to keep their judges on their toes by not knowing when someone might drop in. None of these expectations of courts being open to the public are met by an "advance screening" requirement.

Indeed, EOIR itself has stated that advance notice by journalists violates the regulation requiring public access. If advance notice violates this rule, then surely advance screening does as well.

JS: Can you please give me a list of the "secure locations" where ICE is not allowing the public entrance into immigration courts without a written request?

No list was provided. Gonzalez said the detention centers make these assessments individually and its the public's responsibility to somehow figure it out.

JS: What measures, if any, has ICE made to alert the public about their limited access to immigration courts in "secure facilities"?

Gonzalez referred me to their standards and the EOIR rules.

JS: Who decided not to include a reference to the immigration courts on the signs at Eloy? Why is there no sign indicating the presence of immigration courts at Eloy?

This question was not answered.

JS: Why isn't a search and metal detector sufficient for providing "minimum safety precautions"? Whose security is being protected by this policy of not allowing the public into immigration court proceedings without advance notice?

The first part of the question was not answered. Gonzalez said the security was for the detention center detainees, judges, employees, and members of the public.

JS: How exactly is this advance notice to be given and to whom?

This question was not answered.

JS: Where does ICE state its "visitation requirement"s?

Gonzalez referenced their Performance Based National Detention Standards, but again, that is simply wrong.

JS: How long in advance and to whom is this request to be delivered and in what form?

This question was not answered.

JS: How is [advance screening] consistent with the regulation requiring public access
to the immigration court? Shouldn't judges expect that at any moment the public might scrutinize their proceedings? What if someone in the public learns of the hearing without time to submit documents for ICE scrutiny?

Gonzalez told me that advance screening was consistent with public access. I asked how a two week wait could accommodate this requirement. Gonzalez said, "Who said anything about two weeks?" and implied that I had arbitrarily selected a time frame to make DHS look more unreasonable than it really was. I told her that was the time for advance screening given to me at Eloy, and asked her if she thought that was unreasonable. Gonzalez shifted gears and said two weeks for screening was consistent with public access.

JS [Picard's reply mentioned that DHS had to "check credentials"]: What credentials are necessary? How is this consistent with the regulation specifically saying the immigration courts are open to the public, without any credentials necessary?

This question was not answered.

JS: What does this require? What would be grounds for failing this clearance?

This question was not answered.

Gonzalez concluded by reiterating that the policy on access is under review.

Meanwhile, every day, in violation of the law, hundreds of people are having the most important fact of their lives--the country of their legal residence--determined in secret hearings by judges who are political appointees ideologically averse detainee defenses and unafraid of public scrutiny.

Many thanks to Dan Kowalski for sending on the EOIR update to me and for providing legal insights on the regulation requiring public access to immigration courts!

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