You don’t need to go to Iran or North Korea to find secret courts. They’re alive and well right here in the United States. On March 26, 2009, I was denied access to immigration courts in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, even though a federal regulation states, “All hearings, other than exclusion hearings, shall be open to the public” with a narrow range of exceptions–none of which were cited as a reason for excluding me.
I’d heard horror stories about mass hearings and the humiliation of detainees by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys and judges, and I wanted to see for myself. But a guard told me only family members or attorneys could be admitted. An attorney in the lobby affirmed the legality of my request and invited me to attend his hearing. After waiting forty-five minutes and missing his hearing, I was told by the head of security to go to my car and call Eloy’s ICE office. That’s when I learned that detention centers across the country were restricting public access to immigration courts.
Mark Soukup, Eloy’s supervisory detention and deportation officer, explained that ICE required anyone entering the immigration courts at Eloy to undergo a background check, for which one would need to submit in writing two weeks in advance one’s name, date of birth, Social Security number, a home address and the particular hearing one wanted to attend. “The problem is that anyone with a felony or misdemeanor conviction in the last five years can be prohibited to come in for security reasons,” Soukup explained.
The Eloy immigration courts are housed in a building behind two fences topped with barbed wire. You must be buzzed through two gates to enter the building. Access to the courts themselves requires going through a metal detector in a lobby with several guards and another locked door. Mentioning this, I asked Soukup how a background check enhanced security. He told me these were the rules that applied to everyone, including contractors. I replied that contractors did not have a right to work at a detention center, but the public has the right to attend immigration proceedings.
In 2002, the courts overturned a related policy closing immigration hearings to the public–the earlier rationale was that accused terrorists might disclose information prejudicial to “national security.” Sixth Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith smacked down the Bush administration: “Today, the Executive Branch seeks to take this safeguard [open hearings] away from the public by placing its actions beyond public scrutiny…. The Executive Branch seeks to uproot people’s lives, outside the public eye, and behind a closed door. Democracies die behind closed doors.”
Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney whose arguments persuaded Judge Keith in the 2002 case that forced Attorney General John Ashcroft to rescind the exclusionary policy, finds the two-week prescreening policy unacceptable: “It is critical that the public and press have access to immigration proceedings to ensure that the proceedings are conducted fairly and consistent with due process principles. It is absolutely unlawful for the DHS to place unreasonable restrictions on access to immigration court.”
Central Arizona is not lacking in immigration courts in detention centers, so I drove about thirty miles to the Florence Detention Center, which also had immigration court hearings scheduled that day. A judge at Florence had just deported a US citizen born in Colorado. I was curious about the courtroom demeanor of someone who would credit a 17-year-old’s statement renouncing a claim to citizenship signed after a Border Patrol agent had torn up a copy of his birth certificate and threatened him with arrest, and would ignore his later freely made, sworn statement stating he was a US citizen.