Deportation Decisions: Judicial Decision-Making in an American Immigration Court


This article draws on ethnographic observations in Dallas Immigration Court, as well as archival documents, and describes two strategies through which immigration judges make and understand their removal decisions. The first is what I term “scripted justice,” wherein the judges I observed recited well-rehearsed scripts regarding the limited rights and legal remedies available to noncitizens. Scripted justice was used to justify the routine removal of noncitizens in most of the cases I witnessed. However, when the particulars of a case deviated from the routine, the judges relied on what I term “extemporaneous justice”: They acknowledged in open court the personal “worthiness” of a noncitizen, and in some cases offered lifestyle advice, even as they ordered the noncitizen removed. Across both strategies, the judges I observed described how immigration law constrains their discretionary authority, particularly if a noncitizen has a criminal record, and channels even the noncitizens most “deserving” of reprieve into deportation. The findings suggest that the organizational culture of a diffuse federal immigration regime, as well as judges’ interpretations of the law as constraint, create the conditions that reproduce social inequality once a noncitizen has been apprehended or detained.

Last updated on 05/08/2018