Speed Reads


John Oliver uses a grimly hilarious court TV show to highlight the problems with U.S. immigration courts

U.S. immigration courts are "one of those things that you may not know much about, but are actually hugely important to a significant number of people — like gefilte fish or the Insane Clown Posse," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. You've probably seen stories of ICE raids on workplaces and families, but America's immigration court system, where those detainees end up, "is no less troubling," Oliver said. These 60 courts hear hundreds of thousands of cases a year, the stakes can be life or death, and "the system is a complete mess."

Oliver walked through how we got to a situation where, in the words of one judge, the courts are "doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting," including a surge of immigration from Central America, ramped-up immigration enforcement, and the "glacial" hiring of judges. Also, because these are civil trials not criminal ones, the government doesn't have to provide lawyers for those who can't afford them, so the majority of immigrants — some as young as 2 years old — show up in court without an attorney. To show how ridiculous that is, Oliver played parts of "the single greatest mock trial ever recorded," of a 3-year-old trying to learn immigration law, as suggested by an actual immigration judge.

America's immigration courts need serious fixing, starting with more judges and, more importantly, judicial independence, Oliver said, noting that these courts are part of the Justice Department, not the judiciary. But that won't happen with this Congress or this attorney general. "Immigration courts are a lot like sex," he joked: "The way to improve them is rarely to say, 'Hey, let's do it a lot faster and meaner, and let's have Jeff Sessions overseeing the whole thing.'" He ended with a preview of "the stupidest new court show imaginable," Tot Bench, where 3 and 4 year olds try adults, in this case, H. Jon Benjamin. Watch below. Peter Weber