An amicus brief was filed yesterday by attorneys at the law firm of Sidley Austin on behalf of an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the case of Matumona v. Sessions. Fleeing for his life and seeking asylum in the U.S., the petitioner upon arrival was detained by DHS in the Cibola County Detention Center in New Mexico.
To call Cibola remotely located is truly an understatement. If you Google Map it, you will see that the detention center is surrounded on the east, south, and west by the stunningly scenic, 263,000 acre El Malpais National Conservation Area. Moving out a bit further, the map shows reservations of the Zuni, Navajo, and Apache nations, beyond which lies the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, and both the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests.
In fairness, Albuquerque is an hour and a half drive away. However, that city has a total of 36 attorneys who are members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, working for 25 offices or organizations. By comparison, New York City has well over a thousand AILA members (not including many others located in the surrounding suburbs). The problem of representation is compounded by the fact that the petitioner, although detained at Cibola, had his removal hearings in the Immigration Court in Denver, 500 miles away. The National Immigrant Justice Center was able to identify only 21 attorneys in all of New Mexico and Texas who would be willing to represent detainees at Cibola in their removal proceedings. For those requiring pro bono representation, the options are even fewer. According to the latest figures provided by DHS, there were 689 non-citizens being detained in Cibola, and that was less than the facility’s full capacity.
Therefore, close to none of those detained at Cibola are able to exercise their constitutional right to be represented by an attorney, as assigned counsel at government expense does not exist in immigration proceedings. A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found a staggering 1,100 percent increase in successful outcomes when universal representation was made available to the detained population at the Varick Street Detention Facility in New York City. I will note that universal representation was possible there because the Varick Street facility is located in the heart of New York City, within walking distance of a multitude of immigration law offices, law school clinics, and not-for-profit organizations.
Left to represent themselves, asylum seekers detained at Cibola and other similar remote facilities are further hampered in their limited access to phones (which are necessary to contact friends and relatives abroad who might provide evidence to corroborate the asylum claim), and lack of access to the internet (which would allow detainees to research the law and to access and download country condition materials in support of their claims). Additionally, detention centers tend to have inadequate law libraries. Furthermore, detainees are required to complete their applications, conduct research, and file supporting documents in English, which is incredibly difficult for someone such as the petitioner, whose native language is Lingala. EOIR’s own statistics show that only ten percent of respondents in removal proceedings last year had enough of a command of English to allow them to participate in their proceedings in that language. As asylum seekers have often suffered torture or other violence, post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical or psychological remnants of their past mistreatment (which might be further exacerbated by their detention) creates an additional obstacle to self-representation. All of this overlooks the fact that U.S. asylum law is highly complex even for educated English-speakers.
The latest amicus brief raises these and other points on behalf of a group of former immigration judges and BIA Board members. The brief further makes recommendations for practices to be adopted by immigration judges to help mitigate the above-cited obstacles to pro se applicants in pursuing relief. These recommendations include having the immigration judges explain the applicable legal standard (and any bars to relief) to pro se applicants; introducing country condition evidence (as well as making applicants aware of country condition resources available on EOIR’s own Virtual Law Library); and advocating for free, uninterrupted access to telephones for respondents in detention centers.
To my knowledge, our amicus brief filed with the BIA last summer in the U.S. Supreme Courts remand of Negusie v. Holder was the first time that former immigration judges and Board members identified as a group for amicus purposes. The seven of us who participated in that brief doubled to 14 for the next such brief, filed with the Attorney General last month in Matter of Castro-Tum. I see it as a positive development that in the short time since these briefs were filed, we have been called upon to provide our experience in expertise in two more cases, one filed last week in the Ninth Circuit on the issue of representation for children in immigration proceedings (C.J.L.G. v. Sessions), and now in this case filed yesterday in the Tenth Circuit. Hopefully, this outstanding group will continue to contribute to the cause of justice for vulnerable noncitizens in removal proceedings.
And our heartfelt thanks to the dedicated attorneys at Sidley Austin, Jean-Claude Andre and Katelyn Rowe, for drafting the outstanding brief.
Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.