Every day the nation’s 250 or so immigration judges enter one of the 58 immigration courts and make life or death decisions. These courts are typically housed in mundane office buildings. From the outside there is little suggesting that inside those walls lives are being altered in significant, often irreversible, ways.
The federal government’s most recent statistical report about the immigration courts’ workload indicates just how important these sites are to many people. According to the Justice Department (the parent agency to the immigration courts), in fiscal year 2014, the immigration courts completed 248,078 matters, a slight decrease from the previous year’s 254,197. U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY 2014: Statistical Yearbook A2 (March 2015). Courts in major population hubs like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Houston were busiest, but much smaller communities were almost as busy. The immigration court in Adelanto, California, for example, a city of 33,000 people that houses a major immigration prison, completed 6,082 matters in FY 2014. Its counterpart in Los Fresnos, Texas, where the court is inside a prison that is itself tucked into a remote wildlife sanctuary, completed 6,456 matters. Compare that to Chicago’s 8,906.
Despite running busy dockets, few people go inside the immigration courts. As a result, many people have a limited understanding of how these institutions operate. Austin Kocher, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography at The Ohio State University, recently turned his skills toward the problem of immigration court obscurity by mapping the location of every immigration court in the United States plus Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. Kocher’s map (below) lets us see where immigration law adjudications are happening. In effect, it lets us see where immigration law happens.
Perhaps one day someone will create a similar image of the nation’s sprawling immigration prison archipelago and identify where the largest number of immigration prisoners are held.