While every person’s case who is navigating the U.S. immigration system is complex and unique, and the community support Acosta received is essentially an anomaly, there are larger, systemic issues at play affecting people like him who were or remain detained while seeking asylum.
Courts nationwide have about a 40 percent rate of granting asylum. At Stewart, it’s about 5 percent, according to the SPLC. Then there’s the issue of obtaining a bond, an increasingly difficult task with an increasingly hefty price tag.
When seeking a bond, a asylum seeker must show they are not a flight risk or a danger to the community. One of the things the judge must consider in making this determination is the likelihood the undocumented immigrant will succeed in their underlining immigration merits case, which means successfully proving they have reason to fear returning to their country of origin. Tsu said many judges at Stewart place an unusual amount of emphasis on this.
The judge who rules on the bond motion is the same who rules on the merits motion. Julie Mao, an enforcement fellow with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told Rewire that the judge who ordered Acosta removed from the United States will ultimately decide if Acosta is eligible for relief from deportation.
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“Being out of detention means that an individual has the ability to fight from outside the traumatic environment of jail, but it is still difficult path forward,” Mao said.
For Tsu, it’s important to dispel any notions that those released from detention are “safe” or will be granted a pathway to citizenship. It’s actually quite the opposite. People like Acosta who survived detention still have deportation proceedings to fight. A bond, if it can be secured, is simply to ensure that the person appears at future court hearings, which Acosta has dutifully done.
Without knowing the specifics of Acosta’s case, Tsu told Rewire that based on what she does know, a judge choosing to resolve a case by issuing a deportation order before the scheduled hearing is unusual. But when considering recent actions by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it begins to make sense.
Immigration judges are employees of the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which gives Sessions broad oversight powers. The attorney general has routinely expressed his desire to cut down on the immigration court backlog by hiring more judges and his Department of Justice (DOJ) is “refusing to tolerate repeated delays in deportation cases,” according to the Washington Post. This translates into a reversal of Obama-era policies that allowed prosecutors to “indefinitely postpone low-priority cases,” which DOJ officials said “allowed some immigrants to delay ‘inevitable” deportations,'” the Post reported.
There is evidence indicating that the DOJ wants to start rating immigration judges based on how many cases they resolve, which would pressure them to resolve more cases more quickly while showing immigrants less leniency. As Vox reported, “These moves aren’t about making more people eligible for deportation. They’re about making fewer people eligible for a full legal process before getting deported.”
Tsu told Rewire she’s “deeply concerned” about the tone Sessions is setting for undocumented people navigating the immigration system, but especially for young people like Acosta, who is an asylum seeker from Honduras, one of the deadliest countries in the world. Acosta fled gang violence after having his life threatened and has repeatedly said that if he is forced to return to his country of origin, he will be killed.
“What we’ve seen from Sessions is basically a guidance telling immigration judges to be less generous with granting continuances, which is time needed to gather evidence to prove your case. He wants this process to move more quickly, but if we want people to have a fair hearing, it’s a process that takes time,” Tsu said. “We have to decide what kind of country we want to be. Are we a country that wants people to receive a fair day in court where judges prioritize protecting due process rights, or a society that arrests children and hurries them toward deportation without giving them a fair day in court? I hope we stand up and say we want justice for everyone and that it’s inappropriate for our attorney general to be calling for speed over fairness.”
If the DOJ’s Board of Immigration Appeals affirms Acosta’s deportation order, a process that can take up to six months, Acosta can still appeal to the federal circuit court of appeals. Tsu told Rewire that if Acosta is forced to go to this second state of review, he could remain in limbo for as long as a year and though he should remain free during that time, different circumstances could warrant that he be detained as his appeal is decided upon.
Acosta told Rewire in August that one of his most disliked phrases is when he hears U.S. citizens say that undocumented people like him need to “get in line.” The U.S. immigration system offers no pathway to citizenship for a bulk of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“We didn’t stand in line not because we didn’t want to, but because we couldn’t. There was no line and for me, I had to leave Honduras because it was so dangerous, one of the most dangerous places in the world,” Acosta said. “Life is so good when you’re a small child and you don’t know where you are. Then you grow up and things get hard, especially in Honduras. People might say this is bad luck, but it’s just life. It’s how it is and I just want to live my life and keep moving forward. That’s what I’m trying to do: I’m trying to move forward.”