The dangerous game of immigration judge roulette.

Carmen Rey, Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project spent last week in Texas providing legal service support to detained mothers and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, which houses up to 2,400 detained immigrant families.
This is Carmen’s second post about her experiences in Dilley. Read part one.

It’s the toss of a coin. Heads up, you stay, heads down, you get deported. The circumstances that affect the toss range from judicial quality to the immigration judge’s mood.

Asylum grant rates for immigration judges range from 7% to 96% across the United States, depending upon the judge. As cases are randomly distributed amongst judges, it is hard to explain why some judges grant nearly all the asylum cases before them, while others effectively grant none.

With all immigration courts being overcrowded, those of us practicing in immigration court know that the persecution that leads an asylum-seeker to seek refuge in the United States, and the actual danger they face in their home country, may have little effect upon the outcome of their cases. And so it seems to those of us in the trenches that sometimes justice is reduced to little more than immigration judge roulette.

This is particularly true for the thousands of women and children detained along the southern border.

And yet, knowing all of this, today still came as a surprise. I was barely settled into Court when the judge told me that she reviewed the evidence on my first two scheduled cases and was going to grant both. She indeed proceeded to grant the first.

She then called the second client into the courtroom, swore her in under oath, and told her that she was going to grant her case, because she had a “very strong case.” And then fate intervened.

The satellite connection between our courtroom in the detention facility and the Miami courtroom where the Judge was holding the hearing by videoconference disconnected, apparently because of thunderstorms sweeping through Texas and Florida. The Judge granted us a 1 hour recess and told the client to go to lunch.

My client went to lunch, ecstatic that she would not have to return to the country where she and her young son had lived under daily risk of death. As ordered, she returned to the courtroom promptly at 12 PM, where we reconnected with the Miami courtroom, and the Judge went back on the record.

Same Judge, one hour later. Except this time, the Judge opened by saying that my client’s case is very weak, and that she just cannot bring herself to grant it. When I try to explain that this is the same case we had been in the midst of only an hour earlier, the Judge exclaims that I am wrong, that she has never heard the facts of this case and has never seen my client.

Meanwhile, my client crumbles beside me; ten minutes ago she thought she was free and safe, and now the Judge is telling her that she may be deported to her home country.

As my client starts involuntarily shaking, the Judge proceeds with a line of questioning along the lines of: “Yes, I know that your uncle was killed, I know that your neighborhood has been set aflame, that even the military of your country is too afraid of the violence in your hometown to enter it, and yes, I also know that your family has been specifically targeted by the same people that killed your uncle. But that’s just not the point.”

With every question she is asked, my client shakes more violently.

I try to intercede, but the Judge curtly interrupts: “Ms. Rey, if you don’t shut up, I will conduct this hearing without you.” So I stop talking, because I can’t fathom leaving my client to face the Judge on her own. My silence does little to change the proceeding as the Judge continues to berate my client, until the satellite disconnects again.

Over the next 30 minutes, under the watchful eye of the Court Officer, who is there to ensure that I do not speak to my client while awaiting continuing questioning from the Judge, I hold my client’s hand and rub her back, as she continues to shake and cry in small wet sobs.

We wait and wait for the satellite to reconnect with no luck, until, half an hour later, the Court Officer loudly exclaims: “Boy, y’all are lucky today: the Judge has a doctor’s appointment. She’s too busy to deal with this so she’s granted your case and the other two cases this afternoon.”

So my client was saved from deportation by a Judge’s doctor’s appointment. This is justice for thousands of detained immigrant women and child refugees on our southern border. Welcome to America.

Photo caption: artwork made for Carmen by a young client in detention.