Media Contact

Sam Petto, ACLU of Nebraska Communications Director

February 9, 2024

LINCOLN, Neb. – A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska paints a stark picture of people’s experiences in the Omaha immigration court, a court that is already known as one of the nation’s toughest for asylum seekers.

The civil rights organization says in-person observations from more than 500 hearings demonstrate that Omaha immigration court judges are routinely compromising people’s due process rights. 

The report outlines four specific areas of concern, including the short duration of hearings, judges’ failure to consistently advise people of their rights, deficient interpretation services and the high number of cases without attorney representation.

Among the takeaways:

  • The project focused on pretrial hearings that can encompass pleadings, scheduling and other technical matters. The average observed hearing ran under four minutes, a rapid-fire pace to cover all of a hearing’s required steps.
  • Judges advised people of their rights in only 18% of the observed hearings. Most often, this involved reading rights to everyone in a group instead of individually.
  • Immigration courts are required to provide interpretation in the preferred language of the individual appearing at a hearing at no cost to the individual. The court frequently failed to provide Central American Indigenous language interpretation. This impacted roughly four out of five individuals who preferred to speak in a Central American Indigenous language.
  • In about one in five observed hearings, the individual was not represented by an attorney. 

Three judges hear cases in the Omaha immigration court, all of whom formerly worked as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys. The report’s findings primarily include observations from non-detained cases before Judge Alexandra Larsen and Judge Abby Meyer. Courtroom access requirements made it infeasible to observe cases of detained individuals, primarily presided over by Judge Matthew Morrissey.

ACLU of Nebraska Legal Fellow Dylan Severino, who was lead author on the report, made this statement on the project’s findings. 

“Federal law guarantees a full and fair removal hearing for all immigrants, including our friends, family members and neighbors with cases before the Omaha immigration court,” Severino said. “What we saw is a far cry from that guarantee. In this report, we offer immigration judges and federal, state, and local policymakers recommendations that could go a long way to ensuring due process and a fair shot for the thousands of people with cases pending before the Omaha immigration court. The bottom line is that there needs to be action to address the problems we found and help more people stay in Nebraska, put down roots and continue to strengthen our communities.”

The report’s recommendations range from small adjustments, such as using telephone interpretation services whenever needed, to large actions by Congress, such as passing comprehensive immigration reform and reestablishing the immigration court system as an independent court system rather than a Department of Justice function. The report also suggests state and local governments consider creating programs to guarantee legal representation in immigration court proceedings. More than 50 such programs exist nationwide.

Roughly a year of work led up to the publishing of the report. A team of graduate students and law students collected data for this project between April and August of 2023. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Legal Decision-Making Lab then analyzed the data.

Individualized information for both judges is available in the full report.