Immigration Justice Campaign is an initiative of American Immigration Council, American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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What Happens When a Judge Fails?

When an asylum seeker goes before a judge in immigration court to make their case for asylum, they are not guaranteed legal representation.

All too often, asylum seekers must represent themselves before the judge. When that happens, it’s the judge’s legal obligation to ask questions to figure out the facts and understand the asylum seeker’s case. But many times, judges don’t fulfill that responsibility.

A man from the Northern Triangle* recently went before an immigration judge to make his case for asylum. The judge rushed the process and dismissed the case, but a volunteer with the Immigration Justice Campaign and the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center was able to get the case sent back to the court via a win at the Board of Immigration Appeals. Here’s a conversation with that volunteer, Bethany Spielman.

How would you characterize what happened at the original hearing?

I would characterize it as a farce. The judge did not ask any questions about key facts that [my client] had tried to present in his I-589 and written statement. It was clear that the judge didn’t understand his story and wasn’t interested in learning about it. The judge had clearly locked in on a reason to deny relief and just ignored facts that contradicted the outcome he wanted.

What stands out about the background of this case?

What stands out is that [my client] suffered unspeakable horrors only because he was an honest, decent, government worker in his home country. If he had been dishonest, he’d never have been tortured – he'd have been rewarded with a promotion.

Was there a particular part of the argument before the Board of Immigration Appeals that you think caused them to send the case back?

I think there were several strong legal arguments, but it was probably the first and most obvious that mattered: the judge failed to indicate the legal basis for any of his findings and cited no specific facts from the record. So I argued that the opinion didn’t even allow for meaningful review by the Board. The judge’s opinion was that unprofessional.

How could this system be improved?

Guaranteed legal representation would go a long, long way. An unrepresented individual doesn’t really stand a chance in immigration court, even when their life is at stake. In my opinion, some immigration judges don’t really care about the facts or the law, much less about asylum seekers. They’ll do anything to deny relief, including producing really shoddy, unsupported opinions. When that happens, as in this case, an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals sometimes helps.

* The client’s identity is obscured for his protection.

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