Thousands of people in immigration detention facilities are unable to get lawyers because of geographically-isolated facilities, government restrictions on phone contacts, and inadequately funded legal information programs, according to a national survey.
Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, which provides legal services to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, surveyed 150 of the estimated 300 immigration detention facilities operating between August and December 2009—representing about 97% of 32,000 detention beds. It also interviewed 148 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing legal aid to detained immigrants.
Among the survey’s findings:
80% of detainees were held in facilities which were severely underserved by legal aid organizations, with more than 100 detainees for every full-time NGO attorney providing legal services.
More than a quarter of detainees were in facilities where the ratio was 500 or more detainees per NGO attorney, and 10% of detainees were held in facilities in which they had no access to NGO attorneys.
In 17% of facilities, the government-funded Legal Orientation Program allows NGOs to present legal information sessions. In 28% of facilities, NGOs offered “Know Your Rights” presentations without any government funding; 55% of detention facilities, holding about a quarter of detainees, offered no program to provide detainees with information about their rights.
Of the 25,489 detainees in the 67 detention facilities surveyed regarding detainee phone access, 78% were in facilities where lawyers were prohibited from scheduling private calls with clients.
None of the facilities in the phone survey allowed detainees to make collect calls to attorneys unless the attorneys had pre-registered with the facility’s contracted phone company.
“In this day and age, with all the technology available, it does seem that no one should be precluded from a fair day in court simply because he is unable to communicate with any attorney by telephone,” said Claudia Valenzuela, the center’s associate director of litigation.
The geographic isolation of many of the facilities is stark, according to the report. For example, the Chippewa County Jail in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., is 346 miles from the nearest city. The facility in Hatagna, Guam, is 6,000 miles away, and the Grand Forks County Jail in Grand Forks, N.D., is 315 miles from the closest city.
Detained immigrants do not have a right to court-appointed counsel in immigration proceedings, said Mary McCarthy, the center’s executive director, adding, “We continue to receive letters and calls from immigrant detainees and their families all over the country looking for a lawyer. Legal counsel truly makes a difference.” She noted a 2005 Migration Policy Institute study finding that 41% of detained individuals applying to become lawful permanent residents who had legal counsel won their cases, compared to 21% of those without representation.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Custom Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.
The National Immigrant Justice Center urged the department and the Department of Justice to take the following steps: locate detention facilities only near cities which have established pro bono attorney networks willing to represent immigrant detainees; ensure that detained immigrants can contact their attorneys by phone; allow legal service providers to arrange private phone calls with detainees, and allow detained immigrants to make free calls to legal aid organizations.
The center also recommended that the Justice department make the federal Legal Orientation Program, which provides basic legal information to detained immigrants, available in all immigrant detention facilities and allow immigration judges to appoint legal counsel for particularly vulnerable individuals, such as children or people with disabilities.