Following several incidents in which security guards in San Francisco’s immigration courts denied East Bay Express reporter Darwin BondGraham access to public hearings, the ACLU of Northern California sent a letter to the courts today asking that all media immediately be allowed to observe court proceedings that haven’t been closed via a judge’s order.
“Because this violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as a federal law that specifically makes these hearings open to the public, I am asking that you immediately take steps to ensure that this does not occur in the future,” wrote Michael Risher, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California in a letter to Maria Jauregui, the San Francisco immigration court’s administrator.
On February 16, the Express‘ BondGraham was pressured to remove himself from a public immigration court hearing after a Department of Homeland Security attorney demanded to know if he was a newspaper reporter.
Yesterday, our reporter was repeatedly denied entry to the courts located at 100 Montgomery Street by security guards who work for Paragon Systems, a private company employed by the DHS to guard the immigration courts.
When BondGraham attempted to enter a public court hearing shortly after 9 a.m. yesterday, several Paragon Systems guards told him that the hearings were not public, and that they had been closed by “judge’s orders.”
He was also told by these guards, and by Judy Fassler, an employee of the U.S. Department of Justice, that the court requires people to show up early and obtain permission from the judge and others before being allowed inside.
But there are no federal regulations requiring these things. Furthermore, the guards were lying when the told BondGraham that that the courts were closed by “judge’s orders.” According to court records, none of the proceedings BondGraham was attempting to observe yesterday when the guards made this claim had been ordered closed by a judge.
According to Risher’s letter to the court: “Federal law specifically makes all immigration proceedings other than exclusion proceedings open to the public unless the immigration judge orders closure in an individual case based on the circumstances of that case.”
Several security guards also claimed that they “have a right” to question members of the news media about who their employers are.
In fact, security guards have no such “right.” The regulations one of the guards pointed to on the wall were not DHS or DOJ rules. Rather, they were “Rules and Regulations Governing Conduct in Federal Property” promulgated by the General Services Administration which operates federal buildings. These rules do not provide contract security guards the authority to interrogate members of the press and deny them access to the courts.
When he declined to answer their questions about his work as a reporter, these guards demanded his identification and proceeded to accompany him into courtrooms. The guards then told judges they were concerned about our reporter specifically because he declined to answer their questions about his employment, and they suggested that the judges remove him. BondGraham was ordered out of a master calendar hearing by a judge as a result.
Officials with the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the branch of the DOJ that runs the immigration courts, told the Express today that they’re looking into what happened at the San Francisco courts, and working with the DHS to ensure that public access to the court’s isn’t being cut off. They also reaffirmed that the courts are generally open to the public and apologized for the repeated denial of entry.