America’s courts were intended to be public forums through which people who are accused, either by other individuals in civil trials or by the state in criminal cases, of crimes or other misdeeds. The public nature of the proceedings helped ensure fairness in treatment and adjudication. Nowhere is that more needed than in our immigration courts, where petitioners for legal entry likely don’t know U.S. court procedures — or their rights, and can’t assert those rights.
After initially refusing to allow public access to temporary immigration courts along our border, the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services in December opened the doors to some sessions, such as removal hearings. We applaud the action, and hope that public access eventually is expanded to all steps in the process.
The high number of people coming to this country fleeing violence in Central America in recent years has overwhelmed our immigration court system. In response USCIS, as part of its Migrant Protection Protocols’ Remain in Mexico policy, established large tent courts in Brownsville, Laredo, El Paso and Yuma, Ariz. Migrants are expected to stay in Mexico and arrive at the border for their scheduled hearings, which are heard via remote video conference by immigration judges at their respective permanent offices in Harlingen, San Antonio and other locations.
Nearly 60,000 asylum seekers so far have been placed in the MPP. Of them, fewer than 200 of them have been deemed worthy of staying in this country. President Trump’s antagonistic stance against the migrants, and Justice Department efforts to deport them without hearings, led many to criticize the decision to deny public access to the hearings. Those criticisms intensified after reports indicated that at least some of the migrants were being mistreated in Mexico and were being denied due process during their hearings. Observers are still denied access to merits hearings, in which the migrants describe the conditions they left and the judges determine if they merit refugee status. Ideally, observers and advocates, and other members of the public, would be able to witness those accounts. They would give the public an idea of the conditions the petitioners endured in their home countries, and they then could advocate for specific policies toward those countries. They also would get a better idea of the information upon which the judge made the decision to accept or reject the asylum petition. At the very least they would help us determine whether or not we should expect the flow of refugees to continue, so that we can plan and budget accordingly. Of course, we hope conditions change in Honduras, Guatemala and other countries and people won’t feel such an extreme need to flee them. In the absence of such change, we must join other countries in respecting the basic rights and needs of the expatriates.
If we’re going that, we should be willing to show the world the treatment we are providing, and allow full public access to the hearings process.