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Immigration 103: Immigration Courts

Friday, November 6, 2020
5:30-6:45pm ET
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Alexandra Magearu, PhD

[basedon research report, “When Claiming Asylum Means Losing All Human Rights: Border Imperialism and the Criminalization of Asylum Seekers,” August 2020]

Dates:  Oct 23, Oct 30, Nov 6, Nov 13, Nov 20

Time: Fridays, 5:30pm-6:45pm ET

Series topics

Oct 23: The Criminalization of Migration

Oct 30: The Asylum Process

Nov 6: Immigration Courts

Nov 13: Immigration Detention

Nov 30: Border Imperialism

This IRTF workshop series is part of our Memory & Resistance: 40 Years programming.  Inspired by the martyrdom of Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel in El Salvador in 1980, we uphold the legacy of these remarkable women and, in their spirit of solidarity, uplift the struggles of all oppressed peoples. Over the course of the next year, the Memory & Resistance Coalition will highlight, celebrate, and commemorate our collective legacies of resistance, solidarity, and hope.



Despite popular conceptions of the United States as a nation welcoming to immigrants, a look at the history of US immigration enforcement and policy paints a very different picture: laws criminalizing the entry of different racialized groups, the exploitation of migrant labor, and the systemic rejection of poor immigrants of color, including refugees and asylum seekers. In the past years, we’ve witnessed a multitude of human rights abuses against immigrants in detention and asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border, as well as the persecution of our immigrant communities. But these abuses are not necessarily unprecedented, nor exceptional since they have been made possible by an already developed system of laws, policies, and money-making infrastructures of detention, deportation, and border enforcement. 

In the post-9/11 era, the expansion of the immigration enforcement system has affected not only Muslim, Latinx, and other immigrant communities, or asylum seekers arriving at our borders, but it has also led to a massive expansion of US militarism in the world. And, as we have seen with the deployment of CBP officers during recent BLM protests, immigration enforcement has become so entrenched in our society that it threatens our fragile democracy and our racial justice work. To properly address the scope of US immigration enforcement, we need to first understand its intricate bureaucracy and functioning and the ways it is related to the global US capitalist-military-carceral regime affecting not only BIPOC and immigrant communities domestically, but also destabilizing entire societies abroad.

This online workshop series offers a broad overview of the US immigration system, from historical, legislative, policy, and social justice points of view. We will discuss the mechanisms that have reproduced discriminatory practices and human rights abuses against immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and particularly against poor immigrants of color. Besides some introductory presentations outlining the criminalization of migration, the asylum process, immigration detention, immigration courts, and border militarism, we will also read and discuss together a set of short sources including recent research reports, personal testimonies, and book selections. 

This course is designed for anyone who is interested in immigration justice work and human rights or who seeks to accompany immigrant communities. You are welcome to sign up for the entire series or only for one or two sessions, depending on your time and interest. This workshop is part of the Memory and Resistance Coalition, a year-long commemoration series launched by the InterReligious Task Force on Central America and Colombia.



United States border enforcement has historically relied on discriminatory legislation that has criminalized migration and on deliberate practices of deterrence with the purpose of controlling and blocking the movement of poor immigrants of color. This has led to high levels of violence, human rights abuses, and the loss of many lives, making the US-Mexico border in particular one of the most dangerous places for migrants worldwide. This session focuses specifically on the US-Mexico border because it has been both a space for the exploitation of migrant labor and one of the most heavily militarized theaters of violence against immigrants and asylum seekers in the past decades. We will discuss the laws that criminalize entry without documents, the process of expedited removal, and zero tolerance policies, which have led to the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and migrants, family separation, fast-track deportation, and other human rights abuses.

Please read:

Gloria Anzaldua, The Homeland, Atzlán. El Otro México.

Jesse Franzblau, “A Legacy of Injustice: The U.S. Criminalization of Migration.” National Immigrant Justice Center (July 2020):



The United States asylum process is an incredibly convoluted system, designed explicitly to involve multiple decision-making actors, with lengthy times of processing and scarce chances of obtaining asylum protections. It is also an adversarial process: instead of being received by specialists trained in international refugee law and being given access to legal and social services, asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border have been forced to endure confrontational and abusive treatment by immigration enforcement agents and immigration judges, the cruelty of an opaque bureaucracy sometimes used as a weapon against them, prolonged detention, and most often deportation. In the past few years, asylum seekers have been stripped of their human rights, placed in expedited removal, detention, and deportation proceedings with little recourse to legal representation or community support. Under the cover of the pandemic, most asylum seekers have been blocked altogether from requesting asylum and forced to wait in makeshift refugee camps on the US-Mexico border. This session will take a look at the history of the US asylum process, the human rights abuses perpetrated against asylum seekers under different administrations, and the latest immigration reform policies that aim to shut down asylum altogether.

 Please read:

Testimony of Edwidge Danticat for the House Immigration Subcomittee Hearing, Detention and Removal: Immigration Detainee Medical Care

Valeria Fernández, “These asylum-seekers are being forced to raise their kids in immigration ‘jails,’” The World (July 7, 2016)



United States immigration courts are not courts of law in the traditional sense, as the term is used in the federal court system. They are part of an administrative office, the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), housed in the Department of Justice (DOJ). Most often, immigration judges are former attorneys elected and hired by the Attorney General in order to perform the duties and rules prescribed regarding immigrants the government is trying to deport. Studies have shown that decisions made in similar asylum cases by different immigration judges can vary widely, making the immigration court system highly arbitrary and prone to politicization. This session takes a look at the structure of the immigration court system, its general procedures, and main actors. We will also discuss the situation of unaccompanied children forced to appear in immigration courts alone and with little access to legal representation.

Please read: excerpt from Valeria Luiselli’s “Forty Questions” from Tell Me How It Ends, Harper’s Magazine, February 2017



The US operates the largest immigration detention system in the world, with over 50,000 immigrants imprisoned in for-profit private detention facilities and county jails across the country prior to the pandemic (now approximately 20,000). These facilities, which are often money-making businesses, have been scrutinized for the egregious conditions to which they subject immigrants including poor to non-existent medical care, subpar hygiene and nourishment, and psychological and bodily abuse. This systemic neglect has led to the death of over 200 immigrants in detention since 2003. Despite the efforts of immigration advocates and medical experts to shut down immigration detention facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing being an absolute impossibility, immigrants continue to be detained and transferred among facilities. Most recently, reports have emerged that some detainees have been subjected to unwanted hysterectomies and other forms of gendered abuse. This session provides an overview of the US immigration detention system and the social justice actions challenging these horrendous human rights abuses.

Please read:

1-      Nilson Barahna Marriaga, “In ICE Custody: America, the Country I Love, is Allowing Detained Immigrants Like Me to Be Treated in Inhumane and Degrading Ways

2-      Cindy Knoebel, interview with Amina Salvador: “I was terrorized and beaten by the medical staff”



Immigrant justice projects that only aim to reform national immigration policies do not fundamentally challenge the role of global capitalism and militarism worldwide in displacing and destabilizing communities. The lens of border imperialism (a term coined by Harsha Walia) can help us reframe our social justice work by addressing a set of interrelated factors: the role of extractive capitalism and militarism in producing refugees, the expansion and externalization of the US-Mexico border, and the criminalization of migration. The transnational nature of the phenomena producing mass dispossession and displacement of communities and the destruction of our natural landscapes require transnational responses and a broad vision for social justice which defends not only the freedom of movement, but also the freedom to remain, and the healing of the consequences of social, political, economic, and environmental violence. To undo border imperialism is to first acknowledge that, while freedom of movement should be a human right, movement is currently restricted by a global system of economic inequities separating the South from the North. 


Please read: Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism, AK Press, 2013 (please read the first chapter for our discussion: “What is Border Imperialism?”):


Bio: Alexandra Magearu is an independent scholar, writer, and immigration advocate. She was born and raised in Romania and moved to the United States in her twenties to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Comparative Literature and Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation research explored transnational feminist movements and postcolonial literary texts emerging in response to the legacy of French colonialism in Algeria and US imperialism in the Middle East. She is currently working on an academic project about representations of forced migration in humanitarian work, public discourse, media, and literature. In Cleveland, she has become involved with immigrant justice movements and she occasionally leads social justice reading groups on migration with Literary Cleveland. She is also a volunteer researcher for the InterReligious Task Force on Central America and Colombia, where she has just completed a report about human rights violations against Central American asylum seekers, militarization, and border imperialism. Her writing has been published (or is forthcoming) in The ComparatistWomen's Studies: An Inter-disciplinary Journal, Tint Journal, World Literature Today, the Global Cleveland newsletter, and two philosophy book collections, Ecosophical Aesthetics: Art, Ethics and Ecology with Guattari and Phenomenology of the Broken Body.