ICE Policy Leaves Detainees With No Legal Rep, Study Finds

Nearly 80 percent housed in places where they can't get help in court.

By Seth Freed Wessler Sep 15, 2010

"You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you," goes the Miranda warning. The right to legal representation is a basic tenet of the court system. But for hundreds of thousands of immigrants facing deportation, the baseline guarantee of equal justice that most Americans are entitled to simply does not exist. Immigrants are not afforded the right to legal representation when locked up in immigration detention.

Compounding this legal fact, a new report finds that federal detention policies virtually guarantee that most immigrants go without adequate legal representation by shipping detainees to isolated detention centers far from concentrations of attorneys. The report, released by the National Immigrant Justice Center, finds that 80 percent of detainees are held in detention centers that are "severely under-served by legal aid organizations." One in ten detainees had no access to nonprofit lawyers whatsoever.

Detainees with legal counsel are significantly more likely to win their cases and be allowed to stay in the United States than those without representation.

"While access to legal counsel is a foundation of the U.S. justice system, our survey found that the government continues to detain thousands of men and women in remote facilities where access to counsel is limited or nonexistent," said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, reports the LA Times. "In some facilities, it is impossible for detained immigrants to find attorneys."

According to the report, there are only 102 nonprofit legal service providers serving immigrants nationally. Most of these shops are small and many are concentrated in urban centers. Meanwhile, detainees are often held in geographically isolated detention centers. As a result, phone conversations are often the only way that lawyers can contact their clients. Yet the report found that 78 percent of detention centers prohibited lawyers from scheduling private phone calls with clients. None of the facilities surveyed allowed detainees to make collect phone calls to attorneys "unless the attorneys had pre-registered with the facility’s contracted phone company."

Rounded up, shackled and locked up far from home, most of the almost 400,000 immigrants detained each year are also cut off from their families. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 52 percent of immigrants in detention are transferred from one detention facility to another during their time in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Many are shipped far away from their residence, often to Texas, where they languish indefinitely behind bars and then find themselves suddenly deported.

Many immigration lawyers believe the policy of transfer is a deliberate strategy on the part of the Department of Homeland Security to make it more difficult to defend against deportation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it’s taking steps to remedy problem. The agency recently launched an online detainee locator system allowing lawyers and family members to find people in custody.

"ICE is committed to allowing detainees access to telephones, legal counsel and law library resources," agency spokesman Brian Hale said to the LA Times. "ICE is working with our stakeholders, including the U.S. Department of Justice … and nongovernmental organizations, to expand and support pro bono representation for those in our custody."

The changes are beginning to take shape, advocates say, though most immigrants remain in detention far away from their homes and from legal representation. And increased access to legal counsel or not, ICE is still on track to deport a record 400,000 non-citizens this year.