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It may be a tedious process, but journalists can gain access to deportation hearings

From the Winter 2011 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10. By Kevin R. Kemper While some…

From the Winter 2011 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

By Kevin R. Kemper

While some journalists have reported that they cannot get easy access to immigration removal hearings at detention centers near the United States-Mexico border, it can be done.

I attended one of the estimated more than 300,000 immigration removal hearings, formerly called deportation hearings, held each year in the United States. 

Before attending the hearing, I researched the law and regulations and talked with public information officers with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Ariz. I also interviewed a local reporter who covers border issues and a political science professor-journalist who claimed that she could not get easy access at Eloy, which is run by the privately owned Corrections Corporation of America.

That professor-journalist — Jacqueline Stevens of Northwestern University in Chicago — has blogged extensively and reported for the magazine The Nation about her struggles with gaining access to deportation hearings in Arizona. In one article, she compared access to deportation hearings with access to secretive courts in “Iran or North Korea.”

That claim fascinated and confused me, given what I have heard and experienced with border journalism. So, at 5:15 a.m. Monday, Feb. 7, I left my home about 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border to drive about 120 miles to the Eloy Detention Center and witness part of the morning docket of U.S. Immigration Judge Steven P. Logan.

When I arrived, I had to walk through the electric gates and a metal detector, and then exchange my driver’s license for a pass. No electronic devices were allowed.

The chief of prison security — because the public information officer was not on duty — escorted me to the courtrooms. It was not clear if that was the usual procedure for journalists. I was transparent with the public information officers; I wanted to demonstrate for other journalists that there is access, though the process can be detailed and laborious.

Once in the courtroom, after chatting with some guards about how journalists and other members of the public get into the hearings, I listened as a recording in English and Spanish explained rights and process to nine alleged illegal immigrants. Logan, who entered the room and quickly took command of a heavy docket, had a crisp and stern tone and demeanor.

The first defendant stood before Logan and explained why he wanted to be deported, despite having a wife and child who are U.S. citizens. Apparently, he had legal troubles in the United States, so a different type of hearing was scheduled for March.

Attorneys and family members were also in the courtroom. The guard explained to the court reporter that I was a journalist, in case the judge wanted to know who I was. She asked: “Do you speak some Spanish?” I replied: “un poquito,” or “a little bit.”

It seemed the judge had the authority to kick me out if he had to “protect witnesses, parties, or the public interest,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice fact sheet and the federal regulations.

I wanted the parties to know why I was there, so I said, in my awkward Spanish, “Yo soy un periodista,” meaning “I am a journalist.”

The key to getting access to an immigration-removal hearing: Know the process and follow it. Contact the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review and the detention center in question. Immigration officials claimed that one does not have to ask permission before attending.

Be professional and cooperative. They get to set the rules, even though we may not like all of them. For instance, it remains to be seen whether “public interest” and other legal terms are sufficient for immigration judges to close hearings, especially given some conflicting case law. And, I am not certain whether my access was the aftermath of the dust storm following Stevens’ articles or because of how I explained my purposes ahead of time. Regardless, I had access.

Kevin R. Kemper, Ph.D., J.D., is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he teaches Law of the Press and Advanced Reporting, among other courses. The University of Arizona School of Journalism also has courses and workshops that teach effective journalism along the U.S.-Mexico border.