An Inside Look into Immigration Court Proceedings

by Vadim Gerhsteyn
JCUA intern

JCUA’s Vadim Gershteyn sat as an observer in Immigration Detention Court as part of the “Court Watch” program. In this article he tells the stories he observed, including fathers separated from their children, trials conducted through computer screens, and detainees with no guaranteed legal representation.


immigration-detention-2The immigrant experience in the United States is at the foundation of shared history and a place of special importance for the Jewish community. On Monday, November 26, 2012 I attended a Court Watch training that allowed him to be an non-partial observer in Detained Immigrant Courts. The program was set up by the “Sisters of Mercy” and “Sisters and Brothers of Immigrants” in order to allow people to bear witness to the trials and stand in solidarity with detained immigrants. Each year, more than 400,000 immigrants are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), many of whom have no criminal histories and are being detained on civil charges.


In one trial, a legal permanent resident (LPR) named Jose was applying for voluntary self-deportation after being arrested with fifteen grams of cocaine, a felony that includes intention to distribute. His wife’s moving testimony told the story of a good husband, caring father of four, and gainfully employed member of the community struggling with drug addiction. Now in drug treatment classes, and despite living in Illinois for over a decade, Jose was facing deportation. The judge gave Jose leniency for self-deportation, which allows him to leave on his own accord and reapply to enter the United States. However, reentry is not guaranteed, and the court may have separated Jose from his family (four of whom are U.S. citizens) due to the disease of addiction.

Virtually Present

Most striking about the Detained Immigrant Court is how often the defendant is not physically present at the trial. Three of the trials I observed had a TV screen projecting the defendant from a remote detention center dressed in his or her uniform. In one instance, the lawyer for a defendant was also remote, and it was unclear whether he had met the defendant in person. Due to the resident status of detained immigrants, they are not eligible for public defenders. As a result, they are forced to hire representation that may be difficult to afford, or if hired, may be insufficient in defending the case. In one instance, the defendant had consulted a lawyer but was unable to afford him for the trial, so he had to represent himself.

Lost in Translation

In two of the cases, there was a language barrier between the defendant and the rest of the court. A translator was present to communicate information to the defendant in Spanish, but only when requested by the judge. For much of the back-and-forth debate between the judge, the prosecutor, and the defendant’s representative, there was no Spanish translation for the detainee, who was sitting in the detention center and only present through the screen. Only after twenty minutes of discussion regarding the course of events that led to the arrest did the judge finally inquire in Spanish to hear the defendant’s side of the story.

Take Action

Due to these issues and others, it is imperative to bear witness to the proceedings of our brothers and sisters facing detention, deportation, or self-deportation based on their arrest for criminal or civil charges. Two defendants had no criminal record to speak of, but were detained for driving without a license. The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs is proud to stand with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) to give undocumented immigrants the right to drive legally and safely with a state-issued license. Click here to find out more about this initiative, and how you can act to support it.

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