On Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver's segment on immigration courts shed light on some surprising information about deportation hearings. Namely, Oliver pointed out that immigrants who cannot afford a lawyer, including children of all ages, are not provided one — and are often forced to represent themselves. He also noted that immigration courts have massive case backlogs, inconsistent rulings, and limited independence, creating significant challenges for defendants.
Oliver opened his segment by acknowledging that, while many people may not know a great deal about immigration courts, the decisions that these courts make profoundly impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States every year. Oliver reported that there are currently around 60 immigration courts around the United States.
The late night host then revealed that the American immigration court system has a host of issues. As Oliver pointed out, because immigration courts are civil courts, not criminal courts, the federal government is not required to provide lawyers to defendants who cannot afford them. Indeed, as Oliver asserted, only 37 percent of defendants in immigration court cases are represented by attorneys. Those who are not represented by counsel are typically left to defend themselves.
Notably, Oliver also revealed that many children are among the defendants in immigration courts who are not provided with legal representation due to their inability to afford it. Indeed, to emphasize this point, Oliver played a news clip from KIRO 7 News in Seattle in which Matt Adams, of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, described the problem. "There's children from two years old to 17 years old who are appearing by themselves. Who are sitting there without a clue without what is happening," Smith said.
On the show, Oliver appeared outraged by the notion, saying,
That's just clearly ridiculous. Because you cannot let a two year old be unsupervised in court. You can't even let a two year old be unsupervised in a bouncy castle. They're going to come out covered in glitter, holding a broken beer bottle and a dead bird. How did they get them in there? Who knows. The point is they can't be left alone for a second and that bird has already been in their mouth. It just has ...
Oliver then went on to note that some immigration judges believe that it is acceptable for children to represent themselves in court — a notion which Oliver found equally outrageous. As the host shared, an assistant chief immigration judge named Jack H. Weil once stated in October 2015 that he's "taught immigration law to literally three-year-olds and four-year-olds" and that while it "takes a lot of time," it "can be done."
The comedian was aghast at Weil's remarks, commenting "No it can't! You can't teach immigration law to a three year old. You can't even explain to a child that age that Elmo isn't his best friend ..."
In addition to issues with legal representation, particularly for children, Oliver also highlighted some of the other problems that plague American immigration courts. The comedian noted that immigration courts are exceedingly back-logged, with defendants sometimes waiting years for their cases to be heard. Indeed, a news clip played during Oliver's segment revealed that around 617,000 immigration cases are now backlogged in the United States. Long wait times can be detrimental for defendants' cases, because, as Oliver noted, "evidence for your claim could become stale and witnesses who could help you can disappear or die."
Beyond backlogged cases, Oliver also expressed concern about inconsistent rulings coming from different immigration courts across the country. As the host pointed out by playing a clip from Reuters, in Atlanta, immigrants are deported in 89 percent of cases, while in New York City only 24 percent of cases result in deportation. As Oliver noted, "While the merits of every case are different, that is an alarming disparity between courts."
Finally, Oliver also revealed that immigration courts are not necessarily fully independent from political influence. As the host described, as part of the Executive Branch of the government, specifically the Department of Justice, immigration courts can be "subject to shifting political priorities." Indeed, the influence of the Executive Branch means the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, can exercise a great deal of power in immigration cases, such as through referring individual cases to himself and reviewing their decisions.
Overall, Oliver's segment on immigration courts made it quite clear that there are a host of issues that immigrants face when seeking to attain due process in the United States. His segment certainly served to shed some light on this under-publicized, but vastly important issue.