On April 3, 2019, the American Immigration Council (Council) and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) filed an administrative complaint with government oversight agencies demanding immediate investigation into systemic due process concerns at the El Paso Service Processing Center (SPC) immigration court in El Paso, Texas. The El Paso SPC Court has the lowest asylum grant rate in the country, yet thousands of cases are heard in the court every year.
The complaint was filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).
According to Katie Shepherd, National Advocacy Counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign, a joint Council-AILA initiative to fight for a fair day in court:
“Detained immigrants are faced with near-impossible obstacles to accessing a fair day in court. For detained asylum seekers who are unrepresented by counsel, the chances for long-term safety in the United States are almost nil. El Paso has served as a staging ground for unjust government policies like the piloting of family separation and now the expansion of Remain in Mexico.
“Injustice has seeped into the one place where politics and biases must not be allowed to determine the fate of vulnerable people: the courtroom. We have uncovered a systemic pattern of dysfunction and lack of meaningful oversight in the U.S. immigration court system at large.”
Immigration Judges at the El Paso SPC Court granted only 31 out of 808 asylum applications (3.84 percent) between Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 and FY 2017. In FY 2016 and FY 2017 combined, judges at the El Paso SPC Court granted just seven out of 225 cases (3.11 percent).
The complaint draws from interviews of attorneys practicing in the El Paso SPC – many speaking only anonymously for fear of retaliation by the judges – in addition to court observations of hundreds of immigration hearings and an analysis of the judges’ courtroom protocols.
The complaint details barriers to a fair day in court including:
- the use of unreasonable and unjust courtroom procedures established by sitting judges, such as an arbitrary page limit on supporting evidence packets;
- a culture of contempt and hostility towards respondents including egregious and unprofessional comments from judges such as, “you know your client is going bye-bye, right?”;
- blanket denials of requests by remote attorneys to make telephonic hearing appearances;
- and the failure to provide any or linguistically correct interpretation at hearings.
The complaint highlights a number of recommendations and corrective actions, including calls on DOJ to make all standing orders publicly available, repeal and prohibit the use of problematic standing orders, and provide additional training on appropriate conduct for Immigration Judges.