After World War I, the rise of communism in Russia stoked fears of leftist radicals in the United States, prompting authorities to arrest hundreds of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, whisking them to Ellis, Deer Island in Boston Harbor, and other places for deportation hearings that historians say were probably closed to the public. Certainly, the conditions detainees endured were out of public view: Immigrants on Deer Island stayed in cold, fetid cells that drove some to the brink of madness. One man jumped from the fifth floor of a building to his death.
During World War II, immigration officials detained Japanese, Italian, and German immigrants and US citizens after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. The military held some 100,000 Japanese-Americans in camps in the West, while others were jailed or forced to relocate to other US cities and towns.
The US government eventually apologized to Japanese-Americans for the World War II internments, and in the years to come made some reforms to make immigration more open and fair, such as opening many immigration hearings to the public.
Yet, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, federal officials began secretly rounding up foreigners based on perceived threats to national security. This time, officials arrested hundreds of people, particularly Muslim men, refused to identify those held for immigration violations, and closed their deportation hearings to the public.
Civil liberties groups and the news media fought the secrecy surrounding the Muslim detainees in court, but the issue never reached the nation’s highest court. To this day, the Supreme Court has never ruled on whether deportation hearings should be open to the public.
But the debate over Muslim detainees missed the larger group of immigrants who face secret arrests and deportations every day — many without ever appearing before an immigration judge because their offenses, such as overstaying their tourist visas, call for automatic deportation.
Last year, federal immigration agents deported 396,906 people, their identities still kept secret.
Justice beyond razor wire
To get to Lumpkin, take the highway southwest from Atlanta almost all the way to Alabama, a two-hour drive to one of the poorest corners of the United States. Pass the sand-colored tanks, soldier statues, and the sign for “Sniper School” that mark the Army’s Fort Benning, and keep driving until the road dwindles to one long ribbon dotted with tract houses and doublewide trailers, water towers and tiny white churches, long stretches of hayfields, and Georgia red clay.
Take a left at CCA Road, named for the private corporation that runs the Stewart Detention Center, and you have arrived at an increasingly common sight in the US immigration system: an immigration court inside a jail.
Thirty years ago, courts in jails were less common, but now, they are booming. Eighteen of the 58 immigration courts nationwide are in detention centers, and the judges decide deportation cases of criminals and noncriminals alike — all stemming from civil immigration violations, not crimes. About 42 percent of the cases decided last year involved immigrants detained in places such as Lumpkin or the Arizona desert.
No sign outside the razor wire at the Stewart Detention Center informed the public there was an immigration court here when a reporter visited this year. And the reporter was the only independent observer in the courtroom, even though Lumpkin’s court is one of the fastest growing in America, with more than 11,000 new cases in 2011, a 40 percent increase from the year before, according to the immigration courts.
Since the files are secret, no one can fully analyze what happens in immigration court.
But it is clear from statistics that Lumpkin’s immigration court dispenses justice with lightning speed. Lumpkin judges typically resolved cases in less than two months compared with almost two years in Boston immigration court, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a record collection program at Syracuse University.
Federal officials say such comparisons are not useful, because each case is different and the rapid pace at Lumpkin reflects federal efforts to move cases along in order to minimize how long detainees are jailed. Cases in Lumpkin may also move faster because so many of the detainees are criminals who are ineligible to remain in the United States.
However, Lumpkin’s efficiency may also reflect the fact that so few detainees have lawyers, which immigrants must pay for themselves, unlike low-income Americans charged with a crime. Only 22 percent of immigrants in detention had lawyers in court last year, according to the courts, compared with about half of all immigrants facing deportation.Continued...