No Room for Due Process: Immigrant Detainees Rarely Get Their Day in Court

immigrant detainees

By Pilar Marrero, originally published by NewsTaco.

More and more men, women and children are being thrown out of the country without recourse or defense. As far as the U.S. law is concerned, immigrants have less rights than felons.

Case in point, Fernando Figueroa Barajas, a 21 year-old Mexican man who has lived in a small town called Pascagoula, Mississippi, since 2011. Immigration authorities detained him, and served as his judge and jury. A few weeks ago he sued them, prompting an investigation into his allegations of mistreatment and violations of his civil rights while in custody. Figueroa had asked to be released as a victim of criminal mistreatment.

“They had an ICE officer speak with him without his attorney being present. They said he could tell his story of mistreatment. They supposedly looked at the allegations and concluded they did nothing wrong,” said Figueroa´s lawyer, Andrew Free, of Nashville.

An administrative wormhole

The pending federal lawsuit claims that Figueroa was held illegally in solitary confinement for 5 months, after being beaten by the ICE agents who took custody of him from local police. Though he had no criminal record, Figueroa was arrested during a traffic stop because he didn’t carry a driver’s license.

Free indicates that authorities said Figueroa was suicidal and that´s the reason they isolated him for 5 months.

“They´re violating their own solitary confinement policy”, said the attorney. “He was convicted of no crime, he was a civil detainee. There was no punitive or corrective purpose to this decision. Far too often, isolation is used to punish the individual for other reasons, like complaining about mistreatment.”

Check out earlier coverage of detention and deportation practices.

Legal loopholes undermine the constitution

On June 6 Figueroa Barajas lost the legal battle. He was deported to Mexico, leaving behind his American citizen wife of 2 years, Aunaly, 19, and a pending complaint in federal court. Throughout the process he wasn’t able to see a judge. So a previous deportation order was “reinstated” without judicial review.

That previous order occurred in 2011, when the young Figueroa was caught crossing the border and was subjected to “expedited removal,” a tool that allows immigration authorities to process deportable migrants quickly and without a chance to fight the case in court.

According to a recent report of the Migration Policy Institute, 75 percent of the people being deported today are processed in this way – no day in court, no chance to fight, just an immigration agent to decide their case.  Judicial review is severely limited.

Figueroa’s case was not an aberration. It’s been the norm since 1996, when a series of changes in immigration laws created two procedures that have since been applied to him and to many others and eliminated judicial review of the administrative decisions: “expedited removal” and “reinstatement of removal.”

No room for defense

In both of these cases, the law allows immigration officers to serve as both prosecutors and judges, making decisions that often fail to take critical factors into account, such as long-standing ties in the country or the existence of U.S. citizen family members.

Tania Unzueta, an organizer with National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), worked with activists in Tennessee to get public support around Figueroa Baraja’s case.  In spite of the publicity, they couldn’t stop his deportation or the manner in which he was treated, she says. This is a problem of “accountability,” she adds.

“There is no one to review the decisions that ICE makes as to whether to deport someone or not, except ICE itself,” said Unzueta. “How can we trust that the decision they are making is fair, especially in the case of someone who has clear complaints about violations of civil rights. This is a problem not just with Fernando, but that we are seeing with other cases around the country.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

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Feet in 2 Worlds (Fi2W) is an independent media outlet, journalism training program, and launchpad for emerging immigrant journalists and media makers of color. Our work brings positive and meaningful change to America's newsrooms and has a broader impact on how immigration is reported and the ethnic and racial composition of news organizations.