Testimonies from Immigrant Court Hearings

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Testimonies from Immigrant Court Hearings

Diana Dean, Mount Zion Tzedek Leadership Team

Last year, Mount Zion became a URJ immigrant justice congregation, joining with other congregations in Minnesota and across the country.  We have worked to engage members of our temple in dialogue and in action as we strive to welcome the stranger among us.  Our goals have included educating ourselves more fully on immigrant issues, staying current with shifting U.S. policies on border control and deportations, and engaging our members in meaningful interventions on behalf of immigrants and asylum seekers caught in crisis. As part of this work, we have joined with The Advocates for Human Rights Defender Project to observe immigration deportation hearings. The Advocates for Human Rights are partnering with the University of Minnesota Law School to study the process and results of these hearings.  Volunteer observers record the details of deportation hearings, noting whether or not a detainee has legal representation, has access to an interpreter, has been informed of their rights and noting also the outcomes of these hearings.  The actions of specific judges and prosecutors are recorded. These observations are a powerful tool for supporting immigrant detainees and providing transparency and accountability. Ultimately, they allow us to track whether or not the deportation process upholds national and international standards of human rights as outlined in our domestic laws, in our constitution, as well as in human rights treaties and conventions. 

Attending deportation hearings means bearing witness. We bear witness to the suffering and the humanity of immigrants and asylum seekers. We hear fragments of their life stories and of the traumas and fears that lead to the choices they have made and the risks they have taken.   We sometimes see their families and friends in the courtroom. We are also present when they stand alone.  We remember Raphael Lemkin who coined the word, “genocide”, and who reminded us throughout his life that the law is a living instrument that must be crafted and reshaped so that it serves justice.   Below are a few observations by our congregants.


I had my first observation last week. I was saddened by the treatment of the immigrants in the court.  Dressed in prison-orange jumpsuits, hands and feet shackled, these people were so humiliated.  None of those appearing for their hearings were considered “dangerous”. None had criminal charges other than being undocumented. Only a few had legal counsel present.  

What we don’t see in these deportations is their effect on the torn families.

-Brian Serle


One very important observation is that the hearings go very fast and can be very complicated with many very legal terms. You realize how difficult it would be for the detainee to follow and that, without legal counsel, there is no way the detainee is not at a serious disadvantage. You are also disturbed by the fact that the hearings often end with a continuance and a scheduled hearing many weeks away, knowing that the detainee will remain in custody, away from their family and not knowing how long this could take. In one particular story, a detainee was going to be deported because of DUI’s that he had committed, and we watched him whisper to his young child

In the courtroom, “I love you”, many times and wondered whether he would ever get to see her again.

-Vic Rosenthal and Howard Goldman

It is disheartening to think proceedings like this are simultaneously going on all across the country.  The lack of legal representation is offensive.  How could someone possibly defend themselves?

-Shirley Kulevsky


One of the cases took a while so I observed five, and two were continuances. One involved a man who was from Ecuador and his wife and children were in the courtroom crying. I felt terrible and near tears myself. The man came in crying and spoke to his kids; they were young, maybe six and eight? This was a clear picture of how these policies are hurting families and benefiting no one. In this case, the man had been arrested for a crime but no charges were filed except for the immigration charge.

One of the defendants had been convicted of criminal sexual assault of a minor under age 13. That is the case that took a long time, because the judge had to review why that is a federal crime as well as a state crime. I didn't know what to think about that. In theory, I don't want child rapists on the streets. I also don't want our immigrants treated this way. So I am sitting with that challenge.

- Jessica Griffith


I observed immigration court twice so far. I was struck by the differences between the two judges. The first observation was chilling. The Judge was new and unfamiliar with the process. Both the judge and the Government attorney on that visit were eager to expedite the deportations.  The Judge worked hard to create the semblance of a "lengthy criminal record" for one detainee even though most of the charges seemed to be about failures to show for hearings.  I was able to witness the difference that a good lawyer makes, as well. One attorney was prepared, assertive, and did not allow the judge to intimidate her and as a result was able to win more time for her client. One detainee, however, had been severely beaten in custody and when the judge was informed of this she simply responded that she had no interest.   The detainees I observed that day had been in this country since they were young children--5 years old for one and 9 for another.  Another had arrived as a teen. 

My next observation, in contrast, was made less odious by a compassionate judge and a low-key Government Attorney. The judge worked hard to explain options to the detainees and even took a recess to find out information about getting help for a Hmong detainee who could not fill out paperwork because he could not read or write in English and had no attorney.  

The contrast in judges was a lesson in the difference between using the law as an instrument of justice and using the law to facilitate a cruel and unjust policy. In the meantime, more lawyers are needed to represent these detainees. 

-Diana Dean


There were four detainees, each brought in in handcuffs and with shackled ankles.

None had family or other support there.  For this hearing, none had attorneys.

The first detainee was articulate, prepared, and even by the court’s judge, candid, lucid, and knowledgeable about the process.  He had all his paperwork.

He is a diagnosed schizophrenic. He was jailed in Georgia for ‘fleeing from the police’, and described the conditions there as life threatening, and brutal.  He said, he admitted to the charges they wanted him to, because of no assistance, and the desire to get out of there at any cost. Asked if he took prescribed meds, he said, that missing one dose sends him into psychosis, so he relies on diet, exercise, and no meds.  He had tried to get an attorney. Vic told me that In Immigration Court none is provided gratis, but one must find his own.  The attorney wanted $10,000.  After good questioning and looking at papers, the judge patiently explaining that he could try to find another attorney, and get his Georgia conviction vacated or reduced so he would not have to be deported to Kenya, he said it would take too much time, with too little chance of success, and he would voluntarily ‘deport’ back to Africa, so not to further inconvenience America, which had done so much for him.  

It hard to explain the sense of unfairness and sadness I felt hearing him.  A poor, black man, threatened with worse if he fought, held his head high, and gave in.

- Judy Hoffman

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