U.S. immigration lawyers, members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), practice in every state in the union and other countries besides. We fight for clients no matter where they are, to the best of our abilities. However, we are currently wrestling with an elephant of a problem – hostile immigration court jurisdictions – best illustrated by the fact that the Atlanta immigration court consistently produces grant rates of relief far lower than the national average. When you know that your client has virtually no chance of obtaining relief in your city and also know that if they were simply located in a different city they would have a better than two-thirds chance of relief, it can be disheartening, to say the least. Thus, there is an understandable reluctance among many attorneys to practice removal defense in Atlanta, one of the worst of our nation’s “hostile jurisdictions,” where no amount of time and effort can overcome a deck stacked firmly against the defense.
Since assuming my leadership role in June as AILA Georgia-Alabama Chapter Chair, I have worked with a working group created by the AILA Board of Governors to address the common challenges that face members who reside in hostile jurisdictions and help shed light on a problem that is too big for any one person (or chapter) to tackle alone.
As a first step, I contacted a number of attorneys who have practiced before the Georgia immigration courts, where the asylum grant rate is in fact 2%, far below the national average of about 50%, and asked them about their experiences. The responses I received were consistent and sobering: Practicing in an unhealthy judicial ecosystem can be a soul-crushing experience that causes attorneys to lose faith in the fundamental concept of justice. One response stood out to me, and with the author’s permission, I am sharing it with you:
“I have always loved court, but as many of you know I quit court. Maybe the last straw was my client who had a seizure in the parking lot of EOIR after the Judge granted her request for relief from deportation and denied her husband’s. Maybe it was having to call the court from my hospital bed just hours after the birth of my daughter to ask about a continuance still not granted after months, even when I went to the clerk weeks before with a letter from my doctor that stated I was no longer allowed to work and a list of ungranted continuances which the clerk refused to accept. Maybe it was having a judge punish me for the many, many appeals I won by making me wait till the end of master calendars to be called, regardless of when I checked in. Maybe it was the general feeling of depression and darkness that began to surround me every day. The feeling that nothing I did was every good enough, thanks to the abuse of the judges and the double standard for the private bar and the government, maybe it was taking the blame for all the things clients were unable to do or provide rather than throw them under the bus in court because judges would pick apart the evidence to the nth degree, maybe it was all the long last minute continuances and sudden move ups of hearings making it impossible to ever both be prepared and make any money on these cases. Mostly I just became stressed and fatigued as I had never felt in my life before and a light started to go out in my soul… That’s how it’s felt to me…”
These are the words of someone whose soul has been crushed, whose ability to live up to her commitment to her clients and dedication to the law has been extinguished. This is an advocate for justice who has been forced out of the fight due to the relentless hostility of the jurisdiction in which she practices. It is not acceptable for us to watch and participate in this cycle of misery without a fight.
A hostile jurisdiction is a closed system – a bubble in which the patterns and practices of the various stakeholders perpetuate a judicial process with poor outcomes and low attorney participation, with little to no external accountability, and (often) with ignorance that a problem exists due to the normalization of the dysfunction. If it is possible to counteract the isolation of stakeholders within these jurisdictions by sharing knowledge and experiences, by working as a united group, it is possible to replicate healthy practices from the most exemplary jurisdictions within these broken systems.
As an entity comprised of attorneys who appear in each and every one of our nation’s immigration courts, AILA is in a unique position to aggregate and analyze relevant information and data, report on the disparate outcomes in these hostile jurisdictions, and provide stakeholders with the tools and resources necessary to effect change. As a first step in this fight, the working group created a video report to the Board, which you can view.
Our clients deserve change. We deserve change. Together, we can affect the lives of thousands, and lift up our compatriots who have been battered by the crosswinds of hostile courts.
Written by Sarah Owings, AILA GA-AL Chapter Chair