The Original Sin of America’s Broken Immigration CourtsHistorians in the News
tags: immigration, Franklin Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, Migrant Detention
During the Trump administration, Alison Peck started to see more of her cases have an outcome she describes as “a door just slammed” in the clients’ faces. A law professor and co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law, Peck grew concerned that paths to immigration relief previously available to them were no longer an option. The explanation for it was an increasingly common practice whereby the US Attorney General, who is a political appointee, would self-refer cases previously decided by an immigration judge and then use them as vehicles for broad policy changes. These precedent-setting determinations included restricting asylum for victims of domestic violence and gang violence, and limiting immigration judges’ power to manage their dockets by temporarily closing low-priority cases. Some of Peck’s clients were impacted by both decisions. “It was very distressing to see this happen and have to tell people midway through the game that the rules had been changed,” she says. Hence, the experience of the door slammed shut.
Peck couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that these high-stakes cases with potentially life-or-death consequences were not being decided by impartial jurists in an independent court, but within the Department of Justice, a law enforcement agency. “It didn’t make sense to me, and it didn’t fit with anything I knew about administrative law theory,” she says. So Peck decided to look for an explanation for how this anomalous system had been set up in the first place, and what rationale, if any, sustained it despite a general consensus that the existing structure is nothing if not broken.
Peck shares her findings in the upcoming book The Accidental History of the US Immigration Courts: War, Fear, and the Roots of Dysfunction, a revealing account of how wartime paranoia and xenophobia shaped a system that has been with us for over 80 years. “As long as the immigration courts remain under the authority of the Attorney General, the administration of immigration justice will remain a game of political football—with people’s lives on the line,” Peck writes. I called Peck to discuss what World War II and Nazi Germany have to do with modern-day US immigration courts, and how Congress can fix an “irrationally constructed” system.
You trace the origins of the architecture of immigration courts back to two pivotal moments. The first is 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the immigration services from the Department of Labor into the Department of Justice. How did that come about?
Immigration services had long been treated as kind of a stepchild within the Department of Labor. With the New Deal and the labor strife throughout the 20s and into the 1930s, the Secretary of Labor had the obligation to deal fairly and impartially with union leaders, many of whom were immigrants, but then also had the responsibility of investigating and deporting immigrants who were in the country unlawfully. That tension started to become pretty extreme. Francis Perkins, the Secretary of Labor at the time, ended up being in the political crosshairs in part because of her handling of immigration cases. She was in favor of immigration being moved out of the Department of Labor, but she didn’t think it was very appropriate to have it in the Department of Justice because it shouldn’t be associated with crime and law enforcement.
In fact, Roosevelt had resisted members of Congress and the public for over a year. He had lawyers in the DOJ study the issue, and they sent him a report concluding that moving the immigration services into the DOJ would be inappropriate and could change the understanding of immigration for the country. His attorney general at the time, Robert H. Jackson—who later became a Supreme Court justice and also presided at the Nuremberg trials—advised him against it, calling for a sort of temporary wartime agency that dealt with the threat of sabotage, rather than setting up a system that invites an entry of politics into immigration cases. So it’s not as if Roosevelt and his advisers didn’t understand the risks of what they were doing. They did, and they resisted it for some time. But because of the fear and the nature of the threat and things that they just couldn’t have known at the time, they decided, for lack of any better option, that they would do this.
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