Over the past week, images, stories and audio of the Trump administration’s draconian “zero-tolerance” immigration policy have been overflowing social media feeds everywhere. An audio recording of children as young as four crying for their parents was obtained by ProPublica and has since caused a bipartisan uproar to end family separations. With all these stories circulating around media outlets, how does the Atlanta Immigration Court function amongst recent debates on immigration?
It’s no secret that Atlanta’s one of the hardest cities to be an undocumented immigrant— news publications from The Huffington Post to The New York Times have published articles detailing the city’s harsh policies on immigration. In a report made by the U.S. Department of Justice last year, more than 90 percent of asylum applications were denied at the Atlanta Immigration Court, one of the highest denial rates in the country.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC, one of the nation’s leading legal advocacy organizations, the city’s immigration court have been cited for bias, disregard for ethics, and openly mocking respondents. One particular incident made in the court of Immigration Justice, IJ, Earle Wilson, was detailed in a report made by the organization this year:
“When the respondent, an alleged Chinese national, appeared on the screen, IJ Wilson asked him: ‘Sir, do you speak any English?” The respondent answered ‘no.’ IJ Wilson replied, ‘sounds like English to me,’ and laughed.”
Though the respondent was granted an interpreter later on in the case, many of the conversations between the IJ Wilson and the respondent’s lawyer remained largely unstranslated. The man risking deportation had no understanding of the court that was prosecuting him.
In March 2017, students of Emory University’s School of Law in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report of observations made the previous semester. It was stated by the report that Atlanta Immigration Judges “have been accused of bullying children, victims of domestic abuse and asylum seekers;” while “[immigration] attorneys complain that judges impose such stringent requirements on their clients that they are impossible for an immigrant to meet.”
Prior to being able to make observations of the courts, Emory students found difficulty being present at some hearings due to IJs either cancelling last minute or denying entry to their courts, despite court guidelines stating that observing court hearings are generally open to the public. When students were able to begin the observation process, IJ William A. Cassidy consistently inquired of their presence and expressed concern over how their observations would be used. With this in mind, SPLC stated in their report that the findings might’ve been skewed because judges may have modified their conduct while under observation.
Throughout the SPLC and Emory students’ findings, IJ William A. Cassidy remains a key subject in breaching ethics and expressing prejudice of respondents before the court. In one hearing, he analogized an immigrant to “a person coming to your home in a Halloween mask, waving a knife dripping with blood” then asking the attorney if he would let that person in. After the attorney disagreed with these claims, Cassidy responded that “Individuals before [him] were economic migrants and that they do not pay taxes. In a private conversation with an observer, Cassidy said that the cases that come before him are individuals “trying to scam the system” and “if you come to America, you must speak English.” On the issue of present interpreters for respondents lacking English proficiency, five out of seven cases observed in 2018 did not provide a language interpreter in IJ Cassidy’s court.
Another concerning finding was in IJ Earle Wilson’s court. Nearly all observers found IJ Wilson’s demeanor to be disinterested in many of his cases— when he spoke to respondents, he often turned his back to them or leaned back in his chair. One observer reported in one case that IJ Wilson maintained a position of holding his head in his hands for 23 minutes straight as a respondent described the murder of her parents and siblings during an asylum hearing, appearing disinterested in the respondent’s story.
With the future of many families coming across the border under threat, immigrant families in Georgia have been sharing the struggle for years. As observed by legal experts and students from the SPLC and Emory, Immigration Judges at the Atlanta Immigration Court have displayed unprofessional conduct with a complete disregard for the respondents in their court. As the numbers of separated children and families in detention at the border increase under the “zero-tolerance” policy, a dismal mirror to the administration’s attitude towards immigrants can be found in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
Currently, all Immigration Justices mentioned in this article still serve at the Atlanta Immigration Court.