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Immigrant Rights Advocates May Sue the Trump Administration Over False Court Dates

The government is reportedly sending undocumented immigrants court summonses with false dates that rights defenders say are designed to skirt a recent Supreme Court ruling.

Immigrant rights advocates are weighing legal action against the Trump administration for sending undocumented immigrants summonses with false court dates. The immigrants are reportedly showing up for hearings that don't exist, unnecessarily burdening already overwrought court staff at a time when the White House is ostensibly working to fulfill pledges to slash a growing caseload.

For a little over a month now, immigrant rights advocates have seen summonses for dates when the judge couldn't possibly hear a case and have received reports of immigrants showing up for hearings only to find that they had arrived unexpected, says Camille Mackler, director of legal policy at the New York Immigration Coalition.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Pereira v. Sessions, Attorney General that immigration officials have to put a time and place on summonses to begin deportation proceedings. "We are reasonably certain [the false dates on summonses since then] are to get around the Supreme Court requirements," Mackler says.

Mackler adds that immigrant rights advocates are "still getting our ducks in a row" but that "there's a very good chance that there could be a legal challenge" to the legality of supplying immigrants with false court dates just to expedite deportation proceedings.

"I know that people are looking into whether there is a possibility of a legal challenge, but nothing has happened yet," she adds.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment. An automatic reply from ICE's media team read that "the entire ICE public affairs team is out of the office the week of Sept. 17 attending a training seminar." The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.

Immigrant rights advocates and legal experts across the country have experienced the same phenomena: immigrants showing up for trial in California, Texas, and elsewhere unannounced, with summonses reading dates that don't figure on court dockets, the Dallas Morning News reported Sunday.

"That ICE would issue fake court dates shows their contempt not only for the people they arrest, but to the justice system they serve," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles. "ICE must be abolished."

The fake court dates are but one of several ways that the administration appears to be making it difficult for immigrants to navigate the legal system and for immigration judges to adjudicate their cases. False court dates put immigrants at risk of unwittingly losing their shot at a fair trial. "If you don't show up for your hearing, you get ordered deported and its up to you to show you didn't get proper notice," Mackler says. The Department of Homeland Security would have the burden of proving that the defendant received sufficient notice, but even if the immigrant defendants challenged a deportation decision premised on a false summons date, the odds are stacked against them. "Judges are under enormous pressure to just sign a deportation order," Mackler says.

In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions halted the Legal Orientation Program, which offered guidance to immigrants navigating the complicated immigration court system through the Vera Institute of Justice. The vast majority of immigration court defendants have no legal representation and have no viable means of obtaining it beyond pro-bono lawyers and legal advocacy groups.

The Legal Orientation Program didn't only help immigrants but also helped an overburdened immigration court system, many say. After Sessions slashed the program, Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says that it significantly cut down on hearing times, because, without it, the burden of trying to help the defendants understand the arguments against them and how the court works fell squarely on the judge. Alyssa Milano, actress and civil liberties advocate, announced last week a fund to help the Vera Institute get legal representation for immigrant families, the San Diego Union Tribune reported. The fund amounts to a push from the private sector to foot a bill that, until recently, was paid by the government to uphold the immigrants' constitutionally guaranteed rights to a fair trial.

The closure of the program is just one of several gestures by the Trump administration that have imperiled due process for immigration court defendants. In April, around the same time Sessions discontinued the Legal Orientation Program, the Department of Justice announced that immigration judges had to close 700 cases a year with a low rate of appeal. And then, in May, Sessions discontinued the practice of administrative closures, whereby judges determine that it is best to refrain from a ruling while immigrants make formal petitions for immigration status. The administration's raids and attempts to remove legal residency status from a host of immigrant communities have also undoubtedly added to the caseload.

The practice of sending immigrants false court dates appears to be throwing the immigration courts into greater disarray and at a time when the Trump administration is promising to streamline proceedings. At the start of Donald Trump's presidency, his administration pledged to significantly slash the immigration court backlog, but from the time he took office until the end of July, there was a 38 percent increase in pending cases, according to data compiled by Syracuse University non-profit data research center, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

In Pacific Standard's interviews with legal analysts and immigrant rights advocates, many have expressed skepticism that the Trump administration is interested in alleviating pressure on the courts at all. The overriding concern for this White House, they say, isn't the courts, but appeasing Trump's base with swift deportations.