U.S. Immigration: In Need of Procedural Reform Too

By Maya Barak*

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr / Creative Commons

Migrants appear unlikely to get relief soon from President Obama’s appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the November decision of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to continue blocking his 2014 executive actions on immigration.  With the injunction still in place, the President cannot go ahead with expansion of the President’s programs for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the creation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).  Assuming that the court will grant the case a writ of certiorari (which is not certain), it is unlikely to hear it before June 2016 – at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign.  Furthermore, as AULABLOG has reported, even if the Supreme Court upholds the President’s authorities on DACA and DAPA, it would also be confirming his successor’s power to reverse them.  The next President could easily terminate these actions, leaving many DACA and DAPA recipients in a precarious legal state.  Immigrants, activists, and scholars alike are following the Democratic and Republican primaries with baited breath.

While the uncertainty demoralizes immigrants and their attorneys, so too do the many procedural problems they face.  In 45 in-depth interviews I have conducted over the past two years with Central American immigrants and their lawyers, the need for procedural reform ranked high among the concerns of attorneys.

  • The processes of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or “immigration court,” are the subject of strident complaints. Good and affordable legal representation and guidance are lacking.  Cultural and linguistic barriers preclude adequate communication between immigrants and judges in the courtroom, as well as between immigrants and asylum officers.  Videoteleconferences during removal (deportation) hearings, wherein the immigrant – and in some cases the judge – appear in a “virtual” courtroom via a two-way video, are often characterized by poor sound quality and shoddy images.
  • Detention during removal proceedings pose particularly serious difficulties for migrants and their attorneys. Accessing legal representation, case information, and necessary documents such as passports or birth certificates is extremely difficult.  Detention centers are often in distant rural areas, far from attorneys.
  • Immigration court backlogs have skyrocketed in recent years, with many courts scheduling hearings as far out as 2020 – forcing immigrants to put their lives “on hold,” unable to obtain a driver’s license or permission to work.

Despite these problems, immigrants say they feel listened to and respected by interpreters, judges, and government attorneys, which increases their belief in the legitimacy of the immigration system.  As problematic as the procedural issues are, immigrants’ greatest concern is that U.S. law as it currently stands does not afford the vast majority pathways to legalization.  Immigrants who truly want to be law-abiding – attracted to the U.S. because it is a country where the “rule of law” exists – regret that they must violate the law to escape the violent and unstable countries from which they come.  Immigration reform and procedural reform are complementary objectives and should go hand-in-hand.  While attorneys’ fixation with due process is understandable, so are immigrants’ desires for a chance to fully (and legally) participate in American society.  Just as U.S. political infighting has prevented comprehensive immigration reform and delayed – and could kill – implementation of DAPA and DACA, so too do the prospects for procedural reforms look bleak as the country enters an extremely political year.

January 14, 2016

* Maya Barak is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in Justice, Law and Criminology.

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