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Why Immigration Courts Are Deeply Flawed


In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver took on a serious topic: the United States’ dysfunctional immigration court system. The segment included several former and current immigration judges who described the horrors of immigration court, even going so far as to say that “[they’re] doing death penalty cases in traffic court setting.”

That’s correct, the results of an immigration court hearing can drastically change a person’s path. In worst-case scenarios, it could lead to someone’s unfortunate demise.

According to Oliver, there are at least three huge factors that have contributed to the mess present in many immigration courts, such as:

  1. There is a substantial backlog of cases – What began as a surge in immigration from Central America due to gang violence, combined with increased immigration enforcement and a serious lag in hiring new judges to hear cases, resulted in the massive backlog that can put someone in limbo for several years. Based on the numbers of the TRAC: Immigration Court Backlog tool, nearly 690,000 immigration cases are now backlogged. The average wait time to get a hearing depends on the city you live. For example, it may take three years to get a hearing in San Francisco while it may take five years in Chicago. Waiting this long can prove detrimental to your case since witnesses who can help can either die or vanish and evidence for the claim can become stale.
  2. No right to appointed legal counsel – Although immigration courts have the similar trappings of criminal courts (e.g. getting arrested, being detained, and arguing against the government), they are actually viewed as civil courts. So, unlike criminal court, the federal government is not required to provide lawyers to defendants who cannot afford them. According to “A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court” in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, only 37 percent of immigrants in these courts obtained legal representation, meaning the majority of these individuals—including children as young as two years old—end up representing themselves.
  3. Immigration courts are run by the Department of Justice (DOJ) – While most courts in the United States are part of the judicial branch, immigration courts are actually part of the executive branch. Since they are controlled by the DOJ, they are subject to ever-shifting political priorities. Currently, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has singular authority to interpret immigration laws, sitting at the Supreme Court level in this system.

Because of the terrifying reality of immigration courts, it is imperative for those going through the immigration court system to obtain legal counsel from an experienced immigration attorney to guide them through the intricacies of the court system and help them obtain the best results possible. Based on the findings from Last Week Tonight, representing yourself only leaves you open to being taken advantage of by the courts.

If you need experienced legal representation on your side during your immigration court hearing, schedule a consultation with our Phoenix immigration attorney today.