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ABA president to reporters: Immigration system is in crisis

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez made the case for an independent immigration court system – free from the control of the Justice Department – to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27. 

Speaking about immigration courts, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said, “I saw something that does not in any way approach justice."

Speaking about immigration courts, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said, “I saw something that does not in any way approach justice."

American Bar Association photo

“The system of immigration is in crisis,” Martinez told reporters. “It is an all-hands-on-deck moment for this country and for our policy-makers in Congress.”

Martinez was one of three featured experts on a panel that also included the Hon. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, and Jeremy McKinney, second vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. All agreed it is crucial to switch to independent immigration courts to ensure judicial independence for the judges and due process for those who appear before the courts. Because immigration courts are currently within the U.S. Department of Justice, immigration judges are answerable to the U.S. attorney general.

Martinez talked about spending a week this summer doing pro bono work with asylum-seekers on the border in Texas. During that visit, she toured a new, temporary immigration court in Brownsville before it opened. At that court, only 1% of people seeking asylum are able to find lawyers and none is allowed to bring pens and paper into the courtrooms.

“I saw something that does not in any way approach justice,” Martinez said.

She talked about working with one particular detainee – a father seeking asylum who was separated from his 2-year-old child for several months. The father recently won release, thanks to the work of pro bono volunteers and staff at the ABA South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or ProBAR. “That one example tells you why it is so critical that we have meaningful access to counsel in these cases,” Martinez said.

She said the ABA supports the right of every child in immigration court to a government-appointed lawyer, and the right of immigration judges to make decisions free of any hint of political influence.

“We support an independent immigration court system, one that is not within the Department of Justice,” Martinez said. “These courts are making life-altering decisions on a daily basis. We have to have their independence.”

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