An Afternoon at Immigration Court

By Meredith M. Vaughan on May 3, 2016

The immigration court in the city of Boston is located within a huge, grim, and somewhat dilapidated federal government complex built in the 1960s. The immigration courtrooms are windowless, chilly, and formal, though functional. This juxtaposition between a solid inner layer and the crumbling outer layer is a reasonable metaphor for how the immigration court works: well-intended, capable workers on the inside, but unfortunately saddled with some terribly dysfunctional infrastructure.

During my time at the courthouse, I observed the conclusion of one hearing and three hearings in full. All four cases were arbitrated by Judge Matthew D'Angelo, who has been an immigration judge since 2003. Prior to becoming a judge, he was a counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, detention division.

Judge D'Angelo runs his courtroom with the ease of long practice, and has an air of almost reading off of a script when he speaks. His general level of competence is apparent to all.

We arrived at the very end of the first case, just in time to hear the lawyer saying to his immigrant client, "... So get married as soon as you can."

In the second case, the applicant was not present, though Judge D'Angelo gave her every opportunity to appear, even sending his interpreter to check the lobby. "Ms. S", as I will call her, failed to appear. Judge D'Angelo ordered that the court proceedings continue despite Ms. S's absence because it was already 30 minutes after the appointed time for her hearing.

Judge D'Angelo gives each applicant ample warning of the consequences of failing to appear. He explained to each that if they failed to appear then they would be unable to obtain the legal status they were seeking. He urged them several times to stay in touch with their lawyer (each applicant had a lawyer that day). He said that he expected them to plan to arrive at the building one or two hours early, so that any unexpected delays would not cause them to be late. He told them to always notify the government if they changed their address, so they would receive all the communications about their hearings. He explained that the only circumstances in which they would have a good excuse for not showing up included illness, a death of a close relative, or something truly beyond their control — not traffic or not knowing the date of the hearing. He insisted that they confirm that they understood each point through the interpreter.

Judge D'Angelo did not go into all the details of the case against Ms. S, but he mentioned that she had first been served a Notice to Appear on June 18, 2015, and then again in person on December 2, 2015, and that these notices were properly served. Her case had begun in San Diego, but she had asked for a venue change to Boston. The government's allegations of her deportability were sustained, Ms. S's application for relief was recorded as abandoned, and she was ordered deported to Haiti in absentia. Judge D'Angelo said the deportation order will be mailed to her. The case began at 1:31 PM and ended at 1:36 PM.

In the next case the applicant did show up. "Mr. C" is married to a U.S. citizen, had filed an I-589 and an I-130, and was asking the government to close his case under prosecutorial discretion. The I-130 form is a petition for an alien relative to be admitted for permanent residency. The I-589 is used to apply for asylum in the United States and for withholding of removal. This application may also be used to apply for protection under the Convention Against Torture. Mr. C was informed by the government lawyer that prosecutorial discretion was unlikely to be granted by the government because of the length of time he had been in the country (presumably this was a short time). Next, Judge D'Angelo asked if Mr. C had any opposition to "consular processing" of his marriage visa application. This means he would have to travel back to Haiti to receive the marriage-based immigrant visa. He said he did not.

The judge then brought up the application for political asylum, which was signed on February 17, 2016. He asked him a series of questions to establish that he understood his statements. Mr. C was given extensive warnings of the consequences of making a frivolous application, as well as the consequences of lying on his declaration.

Then Judge D'Angelo turned to his computer to set the date for Mr. C to return to court. He said he had exactly 3,091 cases on his docket, so Mr. C's closest opportunity for his next court date was February 5, 2019 — nearly three years from the current date. Though Mr. C was offered a chance to ask for an expedited hearing, he declined. The judge said that gave Mr. C plenty of time to work on his declaration expressing precisely why he feared for his well-being if he returned to Haiti. In light of his intended asylum application, it was interesting that he previously stated that he did not fear returning to Haiti for the consular processing of his application for permanent residency.

Next, "Mr. P" had a pending I-130. Mr. P is married, and was before the judge seeking a grant of prosecutorial discretion; in other words, he was seeking to avoid deportation until his green card application is approved. His visa petition was filed by his spouse. Apparently, Judge D'Angelo had already decided to grant Mr. P's request, and announced for the record that the case was administratively closed, and adjourned the case and the court.

In summary, I witnessed one applicant fail to show and be deported in absentia, one applicant get to stay in the country for several years to draft a compelling reason as to why he should be allowed to stay permanently, and one applicant's case be closed by prosecutorial discretion. According to Jessica Vaughan, who accompanied me on this venture, this was quite a typical day for Immigration Court.

Judge D'Angelo's record of decisions, at least for asylum cases, is on the lenient side compared to other judges in Boston and nationwide. From 2009 to 2014 he adjudicated 358 asylum cases and approved 67.3 percent, ranking 226th out of 270, with 1 having the least rate of approvals. In Boston as a whole, immigration judges have a 51 percent approval rate for asylum cases.