A weary-looking immigrant from Mexico whose full name could not be heard over the roar of the air conditioner, stood dejectedly before Judge Barry S. Chait, who was appointed last year after many years as a lawyer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the agency that runs the detention system.
The Mexican man had told Chait that he would look for a lawyer. But he showed up for the hearing alone in blue prison scrubs, his hair mussed. Because his file is secret, there is no way to tell how long he had been held.
“I will speak for myself,” he told Chait in Spanish, through the court interpreter, explaining that he had no money for an attorney.
Speaking in legal jargon, Chait told the man in English that he could avoid deportation if he could make a legal case to stay. After all, the man had several factors that would make him a good candidate for legal residency: He had little to no criminal record and was related to many people who are here legally. In fact, his young children are US citizens and his parents are legal residents. He had lived in the United States for more than 10 years.
But it was unclear whether the man fully grasped what the judge told him through the interpreter.
Chait reminded the man he could apply for a bail hearing.
“Have you done that, sir?” the judge prodded.
“No,” the man said in Spanish. “I don’t know how.”
“You can ask the law librarian to help you,” the judge said.
But jail officials later said that the guard in the law library is not supposed to provide legal assistance. The guard on duty that day only spoke English.
The Mexican man kept asking how long he would be in jail. When the judge said the case could take weeks to decide, the man asked to be deported.
“OK, sir,” Chait said finally. “Good luck to you in Mexico.”
Secrets of Ellis Island
Many years before Ellis Island became the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station, it was a place of public spectacle: federal officials used the patch of sand in New York Harbor to carry out the public execution of pirates.
But, in a sign of the secrecy that would shroud immigration for generations to come, federal officials locked Ellis Island down tight — requiring permission before anyone could step ashore — when they opened the immigration center in 1892.
The Supreme Court even ruled that the island wasn’t on US soil, so that babies born there did not automatically become citizens.
Immigrants denied entry into the United States because they were sick, poor, or for other reasons were subject to closed deportation hearings on Ellis Island. Officials gave advocacy groups office space to help immigrants, but officials kept the public out, dictating in regulations that the hearings were “separate and apart from the public.”
Historians say the secrecy wasn’t necessarily nefarious: US officials were trying to protect millions of new immigrants from swindlers and others seeking to take advantage of them. But the use of islands as the place where immigrants’ fates were decided contributed to a culture of secrecy pervading the entire immigration process.
“That’s why they picked Ellis Island. If you have it on the island, you have fewer people looking at it,” said Vincent Cannato, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of “American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.”
“They kind of walled off the immigration system from prying eyes.”
The Constitution said nothing about the immigration system, but the authors clearly despised secret courts: The Sixth Amendment decreed that criminal trials should be public because they feared that secret courts would breed atrocities such as the English Star Chamber of the 17th century. Today, that principle of openness is applied to civil courts, too, including divorce and bankruptcy proceedings that many people might prefer to keep private.
From the beginning, there were troubling reports from behind the gates on Ellis Island — including the sexual assault of female detainees and concerns about patronage and corruption. Others feared immigration officials were too lax, granting entry to immigrants with low skills or deadly diseases such as typhus — “the worst riff-raff of Europe,” as one official put it, according to Cannato’s book.
A few US officials in the early 20th century worried that excessive secrecy was fostering abuses, but they were “a voice in the wilderness,” Cannato said, and the public paid little attention to immigration policy except when national security threats periodically thrust foreigners into the spotlight.Continued...