Methods: Twelve semi-structured interviews were conducted with Michigan lawyers who represent adult migrants in removal proceedings. Purposive sampling strategies included maximum variation and snowball sampling. Interview topics concerned participants’ perceptions of EOIR and DHS’s priorities, the resources available for migrants in court, and the institutional changes necessary to support migrants. Interviews were recorded and fully transcribed. Data analysis began with open coding full transcripts. First-level codes were abstracted to themes, using sensitizing constructs associated with institutional courage and institutional betrayal. Included codes required inter-coder agreement greater than .80.
Results: Findings indicate that institutional betrayal appears within immigration court as structural barriers to change and court priorities. Each participant identified the United States’ history of racialized immigration policies and enforcement practices as structural barriers to change that which have normalized the trauma migrants experience in immigration court. Findings indicate limited opportunities for institutional courage outside of individual actions. Participants described court processes as complex, overwhelming, confusing, and opaque, which often engendered secondary victimization. All respondents discussed the immigration court’s structure: EOIR judges and DHS attorneys fall under the purview of the executive branch, so the policies guiding EOIR judges and DHS attorneys change with each presidential administration. Respondents felt this structure prioritizes political party affiliations over migrants’ rights in court. Per participants, executive mandates to correct court backlogs have accelerated case adjudication timelines, frustrating migrants’ ability to prepare their defense. Participants felt such mandates prioritized efficiency over migrants’ due process. Participants expressed that a national government-funded public defender program for migrants is necessary to begin addressing the constitutional violations occurring in immigration court.
Conclusions and Implications: Institutional betrayal appears to be systemic to the immigration court in Michigan. Insufficient funding for free legal representation programs, the insurmountable number of migrants requiring free or low-cost representation, and court backlogs have converged to obscure the breadth of the constitutional violations in immigration court. Our findings demonstrate the need for social workers to advocate for political change that would prioritize the well-being of migrants facing removal proceedings. This study demonstrates a need for social workers in non-profits serving migrant communities who can connect migrants with services that support their health and wellbeing as they undergo deportation proceedings.