Per Federal Regulations, unless certain limited exceptions are met, all immigration hearing must be opened to the public. The rule itself is straight-forward, individuals should be allowed to enter and observe the justice system at work.
Well, not so. I just returned from a trip to the Stewart Immigration Court, an Immigration Court that is actually located inside the Stewart Detention Center in the small town of Lumpkin, Georgia (Population 1,097). Respondents are brought into the court room shackled and orange jump-suited and attorneys are allowed to enter only a few moments before their client’s turn and then just as quickly escorted out when the hearing is over. There are no observers in the gallery, except for the other shackled, jump-suited detainees.
I arrived about an hour early for my hearing so I asked the clerk if the hearings were open. Of course, she assured me. I then asked her if I could enter one of the hearing rooms to observe ongoing hearings. I don’t know about that, she told me. I have to check on that. Please do, I asked her. To make a long story short, I was never allowed into the “open” hearings. I was allowed to enter only moments before my client’s hearing and then as soon as it was over, I was escorted out.
It’s sad and also a little scary that this rule is being ignored. Openness is fundamental the fairness of our judicial system and when courts begin to limit public access, we all lose.