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The Golden Door

News and views on immigration law

Constitution Day – A Call for Independent Immigration Courts

September 18th, 2020 by Djung Tran

Yesterday was Constitution Day.

I had the honor to take part in a public action at the Constitution Center, across from Independence Mall, calling for independent immigration courts insulated from political pressure.

My fellow speakers included Hon. Charles Honeyman (ret.), a former immigration judge, who spoke about upholding his oath to protect this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and how it has become increasingly impossible to both uphold that oath and follow the directives of the Department of Justice about how to do that job.  We heard from Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Congresswoman who has seen firsthand the dehumanizing conditions inflicted on immigrants at our southern border and who can, should the Senate have the will to do it, be part of the Congress to enact reforms to re-align our laws with the immigration needs of our economy and society.

I heard from my colleague Tom Griffin, who reminded us to take the broad view, that immigration is an organic movement of people motivated by the need to survive and thrive, and that our actions as a powerful country abroad sow the seeds of migrations worldwide; addressing the root causes of migration is what will really affect immigration.

I heard from Steve Paul, Haitian American activist, who reminded us of Haiti’s proud and tumultuous history and of America’s role in creating the dangerous conditions there today.

I heard from Bridget Cambria, a true hero (I do not often use this label; here it is truly deserved) along with her colleagues at ALDEA, who briefly summarized the gargantuan efforts (five appeals!) needed to secure simply a fair hearing for a 7-year old girl named Maddie, to prevent her from being deported while her case had not yet been fully or fairly heard in a court of law. It was only when the case was heard by an Article III judge not under the aegis of the Department of Justice that justice began to be served. Bridget explained that the root cause of this problem — the lack of a fair process — is Congress’ decision to strip Article III courts of jurisdiction over most deportation cases, thus allowing immigration courts and the BIA, all directed by the DOJ, to operate without effective constitutional oversight. This means the Executive branch has no effective check or balance on how it treats immigrants in certain deportation proceedings. The Judicial branch’s hands are tied. Congress can change these laws. We can elect a Congress that will change these laws.

I heard from fellow bar presidents Jennifer Gomez Hardy (Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania) and Dominique Ward (Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia), who noted the disproportionate effects of immigration enforcement on communities of color and the disproportionate lack of leaders from these communities in the rooms where decisions are made.


Here are my remarks from yesterday:

Hello – my name is Djung Tran and I’m an immigration lawyer and a proud member of AILA Philadelphia. I’m also the president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania (APABA-PA).

 I am an immigrant. I have also been a refugee.

 The people who appear in our immigration courts are on a journey, hoping to make America their permanent home.

These people deserve an opportunity to be heard, for all relevant factors to be considered, and for the law to be accurately applied, before decisions are made on their case. Right now, our judges are being asked to finish up cases as quickly as possible, without regard to proper outcomes. Under our current system, when the lawful decisions of our judges do not please this administration, that judge’s authority to make decisions can be taken away. This is an insult to the work that our judges put in to understand a case and to apply the law, and places a thumb on the scales of justice.

 We need an immigration court system that makes decisions based on laws passed by Congress, not directives from the White House that have never been enacted into law. We need judges who can issue decisions independent of pressure from political appointees, without fear of reprisal. We need independent courts not just to provide a fair process to immigrants, but to uphold our founding principles – to be a nation ruled by laws.

 The people who pass through our immigration courts are an earlier version of me. They are an earlier version of you, your parents, your grandparents, or your great-grandparents. They deserve a chance to make their case to become part of the fabric of this country. They are an earlier version of US, and we owe them a chance to be heard in more than a kangaroo court. This is why I am here today, to ask you to join us in working to ensure independent immigration courts.


If you are interested in learning more about how our immigration courts can be reformed to better serve their purpose, look up Article I courts, such bankruptcy courts. Housing an important judicial function within the Executive branch has never made sense; now, it makes less sense than ever.  Here is a link to get you started:


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