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News Brief

Feb. 18, 2024 |  By: Deborah Van Fleet - Public News Service

ACLU: Due process rights violated in Omaha immigration courts


By Deborah Van Fleet - Public News Service

Immigrants whose cases are heard in Omaha's Immigration Court are often denied their due process rights, according to a report from the ACLU of Nebraska.

Data were collected from more than 500 pretrial hearings between April and August 2023. Due process violations included judges not informing people of their rights more than 80% of the time. Interpretation services were almost always provided in Spanish, rather than an individual's "preferred language."

Dylan Severino, immigration legal fellow at the ACLU of Nebraska and lead author of the report, stressed the errors are violations of immigrants' legal rights.

"We saw a lot of evidence that many of them weren't given proper access to procedural due process rights that our Constitution guarantees," Severino reported. "We're talking about life or death here sometimes, with asylum, people are being sent back to countries where they're scared they're going to be killed."

Other concerns include the extremely short duration of most pretrial hearings -- typically under four minutes -- and roughly 20% of the immigrants did not have an attorney. Severino argued "universal representation" could be a solution: publicly-funded counsel for anyone facing detention or deportation who can't afford one.

Severino pointed out immigrants who have an attorney are at least 10 times more likely to start on the path to legal immigration, and added it usually benefits far more than just the individual.

"It means they can work legally. They set down roots; they pay taxes from their work, and their children do the same," Severino outlined. "Even just a few years out, we have enough people who have legally immigrated, who are now working, that the project starts paying for itself."

At least 55 U.S. jurisdictions in 21 states have implemented universal representation.

Severino emphasized most immigrants want to contribute. He cautioned against focusing on data and statistics rather than the circumstances many of them face.

"We're talking about people here, who came to this country to try to make a better life for themselves, and who are ready to improve our country as well," Severino contended. "We're an immigrant-reliant country for our economy, but also for our culture. Until recently, it's always been a point of pride."

The 2023 Fairness to Freedom Act, which has been referred to the Judiciary Committees of both houses of Congress, would make universal representation a federal law.