Like the Memphis Immigration Court, the LaSalle Immigration Court is not an independent arbiter of the law.  Instead, it is an administrative law court.  It is the sub-agency of another agency tasked with enforcing the laws as that agency sees fit.

In this case, it is the local office of the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge, a sub-agency of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Practically speaking, what this means is the immigration judges are not judges at all.  Rather, they are attorney employees of the U.S. Department of Justice and they have to do whatever the Attorney General, currently everyone's least-favorite Southern caricature, Jeff Sessions, tells them to do.

Looking specifically at the LaSalle court, this agency's sole purpose is to adjudicate the removal proceedings of detained immigrants.  Individuals who have been detained from all over the mid-South, particularly Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee tend to end up in the LaSalle Detention Facility and subject to the LaSalle Immigration Court's jurisdiction, although some also end up detained in other detention facilities in Louisiana and before the jurisdiction of the Oakdale Immigration Court.

Because I work in Arkansas and represent detained clients, that means I get to spend a lot of time working with this secret immigration court attempting to obtain bonds and, when bond is denied, physically going to Louisiana to argue in favor of our clients' applications for relief.

The LaSalle Immigration Court
830 Pine Hill Road
Jena, LA 71342

For anyone practicing in the region, it might be helpful to get to know the LaSalle Immigration Court a little better. Here are ten important pieces of information anyone dealing with the court might want to know:

1. Where is the LaSalle Immigration Court Located?

In the middle of the wood.  Next question....

Seriously, the court is located in the middle of the Louisiana forest.  With the exception of some logging activity going on a little ways down the road and a crawfish salesman who must have gone down the road at least once to hang signs, there really is not much else around the court and detention center than trees. If you like trees, it's great!

Literally right across the road from the court. I haven't called yet, but I think about it every time I'm there.

Even the name of the road the court is on is Pine Hill Road. And the name is quite fitting because once you turn onto it, you're surrounded by pine trees and you go up a slight hill.  Credit to the planner who came up with that name.

Pine Hill Road in Jena just before you get to the LaSalle court.

Once you get to the court you will notice it is difficult to enter.  It is, after all, housed inside a jail.  The facility is surrounded by two layers of barbed wire laced chain link fence that stands around 20 feet tall.  Walk up to the gate and press the button. No one will answer, but 5 to 60 seconds later you'll hear a buzzing noise and the gate will pop open.

Close the gate behind you and you'll find yourself between the two layers of fencing.  Approach the second gate and repeat what you just did at the first gate.  Now you can enter the facility.

Once inside, you will be greeted by a GEO Group employee sitting at a desk in a small lobby.  These GEO contractors are probably the most pleasant people in the detention center.  You'll have to sign a permission form to be allowed to take your cell phone and electronics into the facility and then empty your pockets and walk through a scanner; but that's fairly common in these situations, so no sweat. Now you can wait in the lobby until they call your case.

Behind the lobby are offices. The office to the left belongs to ICE, including operations for the Office of Chief Counsel.  To the right is the court office: a tiny room with a computer, files and a couple of clerks.

2. There are no judges in the LaSalle Immigration Court

When you are allowed back to the court rooms, you will notice there are four of them.  You will also notice that, with the exception of a single GEO employee manning each room (sometimes), the court rooms are completely empty.

In fact, the four immigration judges who handle the caseload for the court do not live or work in the area. Instead, they appear via televideo from the Miami Immigration Court.  This obviously can create some issues and those will be addressed below, but for now, the four immigration judges currently handling cases in LaSalle are:

Judge Marsha K. Nettles - Started as an immigration judge in the Detroit Immigration Court and then transferred relatively recently to the Miami Immigration Court.  While in Detroit, she denied 80.3% of asylum applications filed in her courtroom.  Licensed in Michigan, Judge Nettles graduated from Michigan State University and the University of Detroit, Mercy School of Law. Prior to being appointed as an immigration judge, she was a trial attorney for the Office of Chief Counsel, serving as the Chief Counsel in Detroit from 2003-2005.

Judge Denise A. Marks Lane - After attending Howard University and Georgetown University Law Center, Judge Lane worked as a trial attorney for the former Immigration and Naturalization Service ("INS") in New York. She switched over to the Board of Immigration Appeals working as a staff attorney for 5 years before being appointed as an immigration judge in 1994.  From 2012 to 2017, Judge Lane denied 70.4% of asylum applications brought in her courtroom.

Judge Madeline Garcia - Attended the University of Puerto Rico for her undergraduate and law degrees and then taught at the same as an adjunct professor running the university's asylum clinic. Prior to becoming an immigration judge, Judge Garcia worked in private practice for 19 years, including as a sole practitioner. For most of her career, Judge Garcia focused her practice on immigration law.  She denies 87.8% of asylum applications.

Judge Lourdes Rodriguez de Jongh - An alum of the University of Miami for both her undergraduate and law degrees, Judge Rodriguez de Jongh is licensed in Florida and spent the entirety of her career before being appointed as an immigration judge working as a private immigration attorney, including stints working for non-profit organizations representing asylum seekers.  From 2012 to 2017, Judge Rodriguez de Jongh denied 52.6% of asylum applications.

For the first several months the LaSalle court was open, immigration judges would appear in person during short assignments from other immigration courts.  It is always possible that setup could return or that permanent immigration judges are assigned to the court, but for now televideo is the way things are.

**Update** As of Monday, August 27, 2018, the LaSalle Immigration Court will no longer be managed by the Miami Immigration Court, but will have at least one resident, yet-to-be-named immigration judge with the goal of four resident immigration judges starting in October 2018.

3. There are no prosecutors (trial attorneys) either...

Like the immigration judges, all trial attorneys handling matters before the LaSalle Immigration Court appear from the Miami Immigration Court and are part of the Miami Office of Chief Counsel.  They appear from the same room and via the same televideo feed as the immigration judges.  They enjoy internet access (more on that later) and direct contact with the judge and others in the courtroom where the decisions are made.

Even so, the Office of Chief Counsel maintains staff in the Jena detention center. Their main purpose is to organize and forward filings received in Jena to the Office of Chief Counsel in Miami.

Earlier in the LaSalle Immigration Court's history, trial attorneys were physically present in Jena, but gone are those days.  The only persons physically present in the courtroom during the hearing will be you, your client and an employee of GEO.  It may go without saying, but this is a very alienating experience.

4. What role does the court play?

A cynic might say it is the role of the court to deport as many detainees as possible.  A cynic would be correct.

The LaSalle Immigration Court is a machine.  It grinds you down. Everything from its location, to the distance between the immigration judges and the individuals whose cases they decide, the lack of access to internet, the time between hearings and fierce opposition to continuances presented by judges and trial attorneys alike, among many other aspects of the court, are designed to make it as difficult as possible for a detainee to obtain a bond or achieve approval of an application for relief.

This is not to say the judges, trial attorneys and court staff working at the LaSalle court are bad people. On the contrary, they're professionals doing their best to do a difficult job. Regardless, it is important to understand that those victories are few and far between and things are that way because the system is organized to make it that way.

5. If the court's in the middle of nowhere, where do I eat?

The LaSalle Immigration Court is indisputably in the middle of nowhere.  The nearest town is Jena, a tiny town with few options at first glance.  It's one of those old one-street Southern towns, but don't let that fool you. Jena is still located in Louisiana, so there is some very good food.

The center of Jena

There are a couple of gas stations, a barbecue restaurant and a delightful little place that serves po'boys.

When in Louisiana....

Of course, there are also options outside of Jena. I always drive to the LaSalle Immigration Court from the north.  The largest city I drive through in Louisiana is Monroe.  About an hour away from Jena, Monroe is one of Louisiana's larger metro areas and has several places to unwind after a depressing day in court.  It's also usually where I stay the evening before a hearing.

My favorite place in Monroe is Warehouse No. 1, a great local restaurant specializing in Louisiana favorites. It's become somewhat of a tradition where, win or lose, I go to the warehouse and enjoy a bowl of Louisiana-style shrimp & grits on the restaurant's deck over the Ouachita River.  At the very least it's something to look forward to.  If heading to Jena from further south, there are also great options in Alexandria.

Wherever you go, make sure to take some time to re-center yourself after spending time in the grind that is LaSalle. One cannot overstate the importance of self care.

6. How does running the LaSalle Immigration Court from Miami work?

It runs, but with lots of hiccups.  

There have been some notable problems.  Things move fast in Jena and when respondents and defense counsel are required to file their motions and documents in Louisiana and then hope those things make their way to Miami, we're simply moving on a separate timeline than the immigration judges and trial attorneys.  This is never so true as when representing individuals with criminal histories.  

Applications for every form of relief or bond typically require us to obtain certified copies of criminal records from state courts that do not care about LaSalle's deadlines or method of receiving documents in one location and then scanning them to another.

Documents have been lost in this process, although Miami staff has always been helpful in tracking things down. Lost documents can result in prolonged detention or the denial of applications for relief and the court losing these documents is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.  It is one thing to lose a case on the merits, but quite another to lose because the court loses filings.

Just know that the court requires you to file documents with the detention center. When filings are received, they are scanned over to the Miami Immigration Court where they are distributed to the immigration judge presiding over the case.  This is a multi-step process that renders the simple act of providing paperwork to the immigration court overly complicated and prone to error.

Regardless, it's the system that has been imposed on us and, for now, we have to deal with it. Things you can do to avoid problems include:

  1. File documents well in advance of all hearings and deadlines (although this is not always feasible, reasonable, or fair)
  2. File copies of the documents with both the LaSalle Immigration Court and the Miami Immigration Court
  3. Call the LaSalle Immigration Court and verify both receipt of the filing and the transfer of the filing to the immigration judge
  4. Document all filings by sending everything via overnight courier, tracking packages, requesting file-marked copies and explaining on the record how everything was sent when an immigration judge explains the documents are not in her possession.
With the Miami Immigration Court finishing up its management of the LaSalle Immigration Court starting in late August 2018, things will likely change.

7. There is no internet access if you don't work for the government

At most immigration courts throughout the country, there is no internet access, but you have signal and can use your phone as a hot spot. Not so in LaSalle.  There is no cell service in the detention center and there is no internet access provided to defense attorneys while in the courtrooms of the facility.  This is important for two main reasons:

First, if you rely on electronic files, make sure everything is downloaded and opened on your computer before you enter the detention center.  If anything goes wrong you will not be able to get access to anything you have stored in the cloud.  I may not be the best attorney in the world, but even I know I am at a serious disadvantage if I do not have access to a client's file during a hearing.

Second, the trial attorneys in Miami do have access to internet.  That may not seem like a big deal.  After all, you can always bring physical copies of your legal resource books with you wherever you go (but be warned: the combined weight of Kurzban's, the INA, the 8 CFR & any other resource book is substantial).  But this is a huge deal.  In trials where even the smallest detail can be the difference between winning and losing and where we generally bear the burdens of proof, every little advantage or disadvantage counts.

As defense attorneys, we already have numerous disadvantages. Adding lack of internet access, especially when opposing counsel has full access, is significant. It may not be fatal in every case, but there are times where it might be necessary to pull up previous e-mail correspondence with the trial attorney or perform on-the-spot citation checks.  Trial attorneys can do that.  Defense attorneys cannot.

8. Your clients will not want to fight their cases

The LaSalle Detention Facility is a depressing place. As already discussed, detainees are arrested and transferred to a place that is about as remote as anywhere in the southern United States. They are separated from family and counsel.  It is simply too far out of the way for loved ones to visit with any degree of frequency.

We routinely hear of reports of guards and ICE agents telling detainees how hopeless their case is; how they should just give up and accept a removal order.  There is no separating minor offenders from hardened criminals. Occasionally, detainees even die.

Sunrise over a bayou near Jena.  This is not the Louisiana your clients will experience and it shows.

This is not hyperbole. You can see it on your clients faces as you spend time with them in the facility preparing for hearings. You can hear it in their voices as you speak to them on the phone.  Most of these individuals just want out. They're tired of being in that environment.  When requesting bond and fighting for relief from removal take months to pull off, it just gets harder.  When we lose at trial, rarely do our clients want to risk spending several more months in detention fighting out an appeal.

Be ready for this.  Listen to your clients and accept their decisions.  You may have to play the role of cheerleader in strong cases or facilitate the winding down of a case in borderline or weak cases that you would be more than happy to fight in the non-detained context.

9. How do I plan my day at the facility?

Arrive with plenty of time to spare.  As referenced above, you will be subject to an administrative inspection when you get to the detention center. That might take some time. You will also have to sign documents in order to be allowed to bring electronics into the courtroom. 

Most importantly, you will not be allowed to just wander around the facility all alone.  You will be escorted to and from the courtrooms by GEO employees and allowed to enter only with just enough time to be able to speak with your client before the hearing.  You will not be offered a private room to meet with your client and instead will have to conduct a pre-hearing meeting in the corridor connecting the four courtrooms.

Be ready for anything, inside or out of the detention center. On one of my first trips to Jena, a logging truck overturned, dumping tons of recently chopped trees onto the road and causing a traffic jam in south Arkansas.

Often times your hearing will not begin at the time it was scheduled and you will be required to wait around until the immigration judge is ready for you.  Sometimes the judge will want to start the hearing before the scheduled time. The schedule is difficult to predict and completely outside of your control.

Make sure you give yourself as much of it as you can.

10. Wrapping it up:

The LaSalle Immigration Court is designed to process detainees for removal as quickly and efficiently as possible while creating some semblance of due process. It is designed for detainees and their defense counsel to lose as often as possible.  It is one of the most difficult places I have ever practiced.

Be aware of that going into it.  Encourage your client, but honor their informed decisions. Respect the judge and opposing counsel, but don't let them blame the court's inefficiencies on you.  It's a long trip, so schedule some time for yourself at some point in the journey.  Most of all, don't stop fighting.  The only person standing between you and your client's removal most of the time is you.  Best of luck in LaSalle.

Nathan Bogart is an immigration attorney at Bogart Immigration, PLLC. He focuses his practice exclusively on immigration law, with a particular focus on removal defense, family petitions and humanitarian options.

Bogart Immigration, PLLC is a group of legal professionals dedicated exclusively to immigration cases. Based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, we represent clients from all over the state of Arkansas and beyond.


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