Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Watch DVD of Fahrenheit 451/Secret Courts Exploit Immigrants

 The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration Committee is hosting its latest FILM & SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS VIDEO SERIES. The theme is First Amendment rights.  The final film in the series is FAHRENHEIT 451 [France, 1966], which will be shown on Fri., June 26 at a private home on a large-screen television.  If interested in seeing the DVD, RSVP to Max at 410-366-1637.

Based on the classic novel by Ray Bradbury, the film by Francois Truffaut stars Oscar Werner as a “fireman” who burns books and Julie Christie in the dual roles of his wife and another woman who might be a subversive.

Doors open at 7 PM, and the DVD starts at 7:30 PM.  There is no charge, and refreshments will be available.  A discussion will follow.


Secret Courts Exploit Immigrants

By Jacqueline Stevens

The Nation

June 16, 2009



You don't need to go to Iran or North Korea to find

secret courts. They're alive and well right here in the

United States. On March 26, 2009, I was denied access to

immigration courts in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, even

though a federal regulation states, "All hearings, other

than exclusion hearings, shall be open to the public"

with a narrow range of exceptions--none of which were

cited as a reason for excluding me.


Editor's Note: An earlier version of this report

erroneously stated that the fences around the Eloy,

Arizona detention center were electrified. In fact, they are not.


I'd heard horror stories about mass hearings and the

humiliation of detainees by Immigration and Customs

Enforcement (ICE) attorneys and judges, and I wanted to

see for myself. But a guard told me only family members

or attorneys could be admitted. An attorney in the lobby

affirmed the legality of my request and invited me to

attend his hearing. After waiting forty-five minutes and

missing his hearing, I was told by the head of security

to go to my car and call Eloy's ICE office. That's when

I learned that detention centers across the country were

restricting public access to immigration courts.


Mark Soukup, Eloy's supervisory detention and

deportation officer, explained that ICE required anyone

entering the immigration courts at Eloy to undergo a

background check, for which one would need to submit in

writing two weeks in advance one's name, date of birth,

Social Security number, a home address and the

particular hearing one wanted to attend. "The problem is

that anyone with a felony or misdemeanor conviction in

the last five years can be prohibited to come in for

security reasons," Soukup explained.


The Eloy immigration courts are housed in a building

behind two fences topped with barbed wire. You must be

buzzed through two gates to enter the building. Access

to the courts themselves requires going through a metal

detector in a lobby with several guards and another

locked door. Mentioning this, I asked Soukup how a

background check enhanced security. He told me these

were the rules that applied to everyone, including

contractors. I replied that contractors did not have a

right to work at a detention center, but the public has

the right to attend immigration proceedings.


In 2002, the courts overturned a related policy closing

immigration hearings to the public--the earlier

rationale was that accused terrorists might disclose

information prejudicial to "national security." Sixth

Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith smacked down the Bush

administration: "Today, the Executive Branch seeks to

take this safeguard [open hearings] away from the public

by placing its actions beyond public scrutiny.... The

Executive Branch seeks to uproot people's lives, outside

the public eye, and behind a closed door. Democracies

die behind closed doors."


Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney

whose arguments persuaded Judge Keith in the 2002 case

that forced Attorney General John Ashcroft to rescind

the exclusionary policy, finds the two-week prescreening

policy unacceptable: "It is critical that the public and

press have access to immigration proceedings to ensure

that the proceedings are conducted fairly and consistent

with due process principles. It is absolutely unlawful

for the DHS to place unreasonable restrictions on access

to immigration court."


Central Arizona is not lacking in immigration courts in

detention centers, so I drove about thirty miles to the

Florence Detention Center, which also had immigration

court hearings scheduled that day. A judge at Florence

had just deported a US citizen born in Colorado. I was

curious about the courtroom demeanor of someone who

would credit a 17-year-old's statement renouncing a

claim to citizenship signed after a Border Patrol agent

had torn up a copy of his birth certificate and

threatened him with arrest, and would ignore his later

freely made, sworn statement stating he was a US citizen.


The statement signed at the border is evidence of

nothing except government misconduct. What kind of

person ignores a birth certificate and extensive

documentation of birth in a Denver hospital, including

newborn infant reflex tests and an enlarged photo of the

respondent holding the exact same birth certificate when

he was about eight years old, and decides to permanently

remove a US citizen from his country and render him

stateless? How does he conduct his hearings? What was

happening that day in his Florence courtroom?


I can't answer these questions because I was refused

entry. After standing twenty minutes at the front gate--

there's a sentry post regulating cars and foot traffic--

the ICE guard said they would not allow me to enter,

only attorneys and family members. I asked him if he was

aware that immigration courts were supposed to be open

to the public. He was affable, and said, "Yes, I know. I

thought it was going to go good but then they called a

supervisor and they said, 'No, we're not letting her

in.'" He also gave me a phone number for ICE at

Florence. The agent answering said that I needed to

speak with someone else and then connected me to a

woman's voicemail. No one returned my call that day or

on subsequent occasions. The immigration courts at

Florence are either closed to the entire public or are

screening for ICE critics. Both actions are illegal.


In an interview, Representative Zoe Lofgren, a

California Democrat and chair of the House subcommittee

overseeing immigrant rights, expressed concern about the

public's exclusion from immigration courts in detention

centers. "A federal regulation requires proceedings to

be open. The public has a right to attend these hearings

under this regulation and any limit of this is in

violation of this regulation," with the exceptions,

Lofgren noted, of restrictions imposed at the discretion

of the judges--for asylum claims, cases of sexual abuse

or at the request of the respondent.


The Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), an

agency in the Department of Justice charged with

managing immigration courts, reports that in 2008 its

judges decided 134,117 deportation cases, of which 48

percent were for detainees. The individuals facing

deportation hearings in these remote sites--far from

their families, indigent and without attorneys--are the

most legally fragile population in the country. The

least the government can do is follow the law and allow

public access to the courts. ICE is physically barring

entry into the immigration courts in detention centers,

but the real culprit is the EOIR. If that agency, under

the Department of Justice, cannot arrange to allow the

public into immigration courts in detention centers,

then the Justice Department should house the courts in

other facilities.


Mary Naftzger, a member of the Chicago New Sanctuary

Coalition who frequently attends immigration hearings,

said, "We have feedback from lawyers who say the judges

are more respectful when court watchers are there." She

explained that most of the respondents do not have

attorneys and that judges ask them questions en masse

"rather than examine their cases individually, a

practice that changes once the court watchers arrive."


ICE and EOIR spokespersons state that a screening

requirement is consistent with public access. But unlike

other courts, those in the detention centers had no

court watchers from the public that I could locate.


When I asked Tracy Blagec of ABLE, an interfaith

coalition of churches, grassroots groups and unions

doing immigration court watching in Atlanta--where the

hearings are open to the public--how a screening

requirement would affect her willingness to attend

hearings, she said, "I wouldn't feel good about that,

especially with it being Homeland Security. You just

wonder what's it going to lead to," and she speculated

about one's name being on a list flagged for security

checks in airports or other forms of government

harassment. She concluded that pre-screening would be

"detrimental for the immigrants because it would

severely limit the people who are advocating for them."


Blagec pointed out that this policy also gives the DHS a

handy list of immigrant rights activists. DHS has one of

the largest surveillance operations in the world. Who

wants to be on that list? ICE Spokesperson Kelly Nantel

said she did not know if ICE retained the names of those

it screened in any database.


Naftzger, the Chicago-based activist, said a screening

requirement would reduce participation in their program

"a lot. Some of [the court watchers] are students, or

have very busy schedules, and would not be able to

submit that information two weeks ahead of time. We

would resent doing that because it's a public courtroom.

It fits an image that ICE may not want to portray, that

all citizens are suspect, that they lump everyone as a

potential suspect and can't trust people to come to into

a public courtroom and behave."


"The only thing I want a courtroom to do, for the

detained or non-detained, is make sure no one's carrying

a knife or gun," said Dan Kowalski, an Austin

immigration attorney and expert on immigration court

procedures. Beyond that they have no business knowing

the identity of the people going into the courts."


Hannah August, spokesperson for Department of Justice,

minimized the screening requirements. "You just need to

go through security, like a metal detector. You also

need to get rid of your cellphone," she said. How would

one know how to obtain prescreening? I asked. "To find

out the rules you have to contact the facility." I told

her that no one had answered the phone at Florence. "You

go there." I told her I was calling from the front gate,

and I reminded her that it took two weeks at Eloy for a

prescreening, to which she replied, "What I've heard is

that it's more like a day turnaround." When I asked her

where she heard this, August said, "I can't go into this further."


ICE spokespersons say that as a result of inquiries on

court access by public radio reporter Claudine LoMonaco

and myself, Dora Schriro, a special advisor to Homeland

Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, is including

immigration court access under the policies she is

evaluating. If the policy is not changed, Kowalksi says

he and other civil liberties lawyers will file a lawsuit.



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