Long odds: Defending yourself in U.S. Immigration Court


“You have to be in a kind of tension, a kind of pressure,” Ossai says of representing himself in immigration court. “It’s not easy.” (Video by Damme Getachew)

We’re waiting in a cold white room. Chris Bhang hits the buzzer for the third or fourth time, explaining that it usually takes a couple tries before an officer opens the door.

“I’m just hoping for the lowest penalty,” says Bhang, a lawyer at Ineo Law Group, a small Seattle immigration law firm.

We are mostly silent. After another ten minutes, an officer in a uniform with a GEO Group badge on the shoulder finally comes and lets us in.

We walk down a long, blank hallway. The officer opens a door on our right and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of a courtroom. The seal for the Executive Office for Immigration Review decorates the wall behind the judge.

This is U.S. immigration court.

The first national study on attorney representation in U.S. immigration courts was just completed last year. The UPenn Law Review Study found that only 37 percent of all immigrants and 14 percent of detained immigrants have representation in immigration court.

In the courtroom, Bhang is defending a 19-year-old detainee at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington. Due to court regulations and lawyer confidentiality policies, I can’t tell you the name of the detainee or take photos in the courtroom.

There’s currently a backlog of more than half a million pending cases in U.S. immigration court.

It’s small, with only four rows of benches on each side of the room. Young men in blue fill their four rows on the left. As I sit on the right, a lone woman in yellow two rows above me turns and gives me a small smile.

The color of the detainee’s jumpsuit indicates the severity of their violations, Bhang informs me. Blue is for minor violations and red is for major ones, with a range of colors in between.

“We’re going on record,” says the judge with the comb-over, signaling the start of the hearing. He straightens his documents and adjusts the mic. Bhang sits up a little higher and puts his hand on his client’s shoulder for a brief moment. Everyone in the hearing states their name into their microphone: The judge. The interpreter on his left. The government counsel. And Bhang, the immigration lawyer.

The detainee nervously taps his foot against the floor over and over again. He is wearing blue.

Outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where immigrants facing deportation are incarcerated, and immigration cases are heard by the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review. (Photo by Damme Getachew)
Outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where immigrants facing deportation are incarcerated, and immigration cases are heard by the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review. (Photo by Damme Getachew)

Not enough immigration lawyers

“The interesting thing about immigration court and the detention center is that they are not actually courts and they are not actually prisons,” Bhang points out. “Immigration law is administrative law.”

“For example, in criminal law you have the right to a defender,” Bhang continues. “A lot of the people that you saw in the courtroom were unrepresented and they have no right to an attorney and it’s often very difficult for them to find an attorney.

He says detainees are given a list of firms and nonprofits like Northwest Immigrant Rights Project that can provide low cost or free services, “but it’s really just an overwhelmed system without government assistance.”

“One of the reasons why a lot of people are deported or removed from the country is because they simply don’t know the laws.”

Advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations supporting immigrant rights are overworked and their resources are stretched thin. Indeed, the UPenn study found that only two percent of immigrants receive pro bono representation from nonprofits or lawyers like Bhang, who voluntarily serves here once or twice a week.

But, he says, that legal representation is vital for vulnerable people navigating a complicated system.

“One of the reasons why a lot of people are deported or removed from the country is because they simply don’t know the laws. They go in without an attorney…they don’t speak English, they don’t know anything about the justice system and are detained for months at a time. It’s extremely damaging to their psyches and to their sense of worth,” Bhang explains.

Immigrants with attorneys fare far better. The UPenn Study confirmed this: The odds were fifteen times greater that immigrants fought their deportation cases, and five-and-a-half times greater that they won their cases and avoided being deported, if they had legal representation.

Vans and busses used to transport detainees and detention center staff are parked across from the NWDC. The facility is owned and operated by a private corporation called The GEO Group. (Photo by Damme Getachew)
Vans and busses used to transport detainees and detention center staff are parked across from the NWDC. The facility is owned and operated by a private corporation called The GEO Group. (Photo by Damme Getachew)

At every stage in immigration court proceedings, in all types of removal cases, and whether immigrants are detained or not, representation proves its value.

“The government obviously has to push for keeping the country safe and making sure immigration laws are followed,” Bhang says, “but at the same time, it’s pretty dehumanizing the way it happens.”

Beating the odds

Somkenechukwu Ossai lives in a humble apartment in Federal Way and works the graveyard shift at Ellenos Yogurt. Just over a year ago he single-handedly won his case for asylum, avoiding deportation.

He arrived in the United States in February 2015 after an eight month journey from Enugu state in Nigeria. Ossai was running to escape religious persecution from Boko Haram. As Christians, his family was a target.

“We were suffering,” he says. “They killed my dad and my wife. I was running for my dear life.”

Ossai at his Federal Way apartment, the end of a long journey fleeing religious persecution in Nigeria. (Photo by Damme Getachew)
Ossai at his Federal Way apartment, the end of a long journey fleeing religious persecution in Nigeria. (Photo by Damme Getachew)

Sailing three months on a ship to Caracas, Venezuela, walking through the deserts and rivers of South and Central America, Ossai finally made it to the U.S. border and was greeted with handcuffs. Homeland Security arrested him, interviewed him and transported him to Tacoma to be detained at the NWDC.

He started fighting his case immediately. The judge granted Ossai one month’s time to pull evidence together after he applied for asylum, citing the religious persecution he was facing in Nigeria.

“I didn’t have any money to get a lawyer and I didn’t have any help.” After a brief orientation upon arrival and a single attorney visit, Ossai came up with a plan.

“Every morning, they brought newspapers. I used to read the newspapers and whenever I found something that was related to my case, I would take it out and keep it. I went to the library system in the detention center… I read the whole book of immigration laws. I read everything that I need in order to win my case.”

He won. Release Date: May 20, 2015.

The dire need for reform

Ossai’s case is rare. The UPenn study revealed that only two percent of detainees who fight their case without representation actually win.

“I can read. I can write. The problem is for those that don’t know how to read or write,” he says, recognizing his privileged position of coming from an English-speaking country may have helped him win his case

During his three months in detention, Ossai says he wrote several letters for other detainees using the Spanish language skills he picked up on his journey to help the mostly Hispanic population in the detention centers.

Activists and family members of detainees gather outside the gates of the Northwest Detention Center almost daily. (Photo by Damme Getachew)
Activists and family members of detainees gather outside the gates of the Northwest Detention Center almost daily. (Photo by Damme Getachew)

Immigrants navigating U.S. immigration court face a triple threat: The language barrier can be crippling when combined with little knowledge of the U.S. judicial system and a lack of money to get a lawyer.  

And in the end, Bhang contends that the decisions about who stays and who goes can be “a very subjective thing.”

“It’s kind of up to the judge and the government counsel,” he says. “Ideally, the way it should work is that the best interests of the immigrant should be addressed; yet, there are strong, compelling government interests to keep things the way they are.”

“The judge doesn’t give you a lawyer, they give you time,” Ossai says. Judges delay hearings to give more time to find a lawyer, but without the resources to get one, immigrants are stuck in detention just waiting.

And more time means more beds filled in detention. Private, for-profit companies that run these detention facilities like GEO or CCA only have more to gain.

There’s currently a backlog of more than half a million pending cases in U.S. immigration court, the highest number ever recorded. The government has been swearing in new immigration judges almost every month since February 2016, but a 1:1,819 judge to case ratio is clearly too much to overcome.

Almost everyone involved agrees it is a broken, overwhelmed system in dire need of help. But after promises for reform from the Obama administration back in 2009, years have gone by with very little change.

“We don’t believe in middle ground,” says Maru Mora Villalpando, long-time immigration reform activist. “When we move with direct action, call it like it is, and speak truth to power, then we have also moved the narrative.”

Immigration reform activist Maru Mora Villalpando holds a flier outside the NWDC. (Photo by Damme Getachew)
Immigration reform activist Maru Mora Villalpando holds a flier outside the NWDC. (Photo by Damme Getachew)

Villalpando has been involved in many such direct actions outside the Northwest Detention Center. In February 2014, they blocked busses leaving the center to take deportees to the airport. And over the last two years, a series of hunger strikes by detainees were supported by activists on the outside.

“We realized some years ago that a bill in Congress isn’t going to really change anything,” she said. “It’s not about a bill in Congress. It’s beyond that. It’s about changing the status quo.”


Back in the courtroom, the bond hearing is just ending. The detainee lets out a heavy breath as the judge makes his ruling, setting a bond for release nearly $10,000 higher than Bhang requested.

The hearing was presided over by one of the new judges-in training. A veteran judge sat by his side, conferring with him at times, but saying ‘well, it’s’ up to you’ when the final decision came.

Walking out of the NWDC, Bhang says the case could have turned out differently. Knowing from experience, he believes the veteran judge would have been more lenient.

“When he was first detained, he was only 18,” Bhang explains of his client. “Being in a place like this for a whole year at that age? I can only imagine what that would do to your self-esteem. He had been previously denied a bond before.”

“I was telling them that this time would be different.”

This post was produced as part of the Globalist Youth Apprenticeship program. The program is funded in part by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and the Community Technology Fund.

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