Lincoln, Nebraska — A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska paints a stark picture of people’s experiences in the Omaha immigration court, a court that is already known as one of the nation’s toughest for asylum seekers.
The civil liberties organization says that its in-person observations from more than 500 hearings demonstrate that Omaha immigration court judges are routinely compromising people’s due process rights.
About 40 percent of the removal proceedings in the court involve individuals living in Iowa. According to the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, there have been more than 2,600 new removal proceedings (commonly referred to as “deportation proceedings”) filed in the Omaha immigration court against individuals living in Iowa this fiscal year.
The report outlines four specific areas of concern: the short duration of hearings, judges’ failure to consistently advise people of their rights, deficient interpretation services, and the high number of cases without attorney representation.
Among the takeaways:
- The project focused on pretrial hearings that can encompass pleadings, scheduling, and other technical matters. The average observed hearing ran under four minutes, a rapid-fire pace to cover all of a hearing’s required steps.
- Judges advised people of their rights in only 18 percent of the observed hearings. Most often, this involved reading rights to everyone in a group instead of individually.
- Immigration courts are required to provide interpretation in the preferred language of the individual appearing at a hearing at no cost to the individual. The court frequently failed to provide Central American Indigenous language interpretation. This impacted roughly four out of five individuals who preferred to speak in a Central American Indigenous language.
- In about one in five observed hearings, the individual was not represented by an attorney.
Three judges hear cases in the Omaha immigration court. All formerly worked as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys. The report’s findings primarily include observations from non-detained cases before Judge Alexandra Larsen and Judge Abby Meyer. Courtroom access requirements made it infeasible to observe cases of detained individuals, primarily presided over by Judge Matthew Morrissey.
ACLU of Nebraska Legal Fellow Dylan Severino, the lead author on the report, made this statement on the project’s findings:
“Federal law guarantees a full and fair removal hearing for all immigrants, including our friends, family members, and neighbors with cases before the Omaha immigration court,” Severino said. “What we saw is a far cry from that guarantee. In this report, we offer immigration judges and federal, state, and local policymakers’ recommendations that could go a long way to ensuring due process and a fair shot for the thousands of people with cases pending before the Omaha immigration court. The bottom line is that there needs to be action to address the problems we found and help more people stay in Nebraska and Iowa, put down roots, and continue to strengthen our communities.”
The report’s recommendations range from small adjustments, such as using telephone interpretation services whenever needed, to large actions by Congress, such as passing comprehensive immigration reform and reestablishing the immigration court system as an independent court system rather than a Department of Justice function. The report also suggests state and local governments consider creating programs to guarantee legal representation in immigration court proceedings. More than 50 such programs exist nationwide.
Roughly a year of work led up to the publishing of the report. A team of graduate students and law students collected data for this project between April and August of 2023. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Legal Decision-Making Lab then analyzed the data.