Illegal immigrants held in isolated jails struggle for legal help, survey finds

Even as the Obama administration seeks to create a more humane system of detention for illegal immigrants, most continue to be held in rural jails without ready access to legal representation, a human rights group says in a report to be released today.

In a survey of immigration detention facilities nationwide, the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center found that more than half did not offer detainees information about their rights, and 78% prohibited private phone calls with lawyers.

More than 80% of detainees were in facilities that were isolated and beyond the reach of legal aid organizations, resulting in heavy caseloads of 100 detainees per immigration attorney, the survey found. Ten percent of detainees were held in facilities in which they had no access at all to legal aid groups.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, detains about 400,000 immigrants annually at a cost of $1.7 billion this fiscal year, its budget documents say. Agency head John Morton has pledged to overhaul the detention system after years of news reports spotlighting poor treatment and deaths of detainees.

Illegal immigrants facing deportation proceedings have no guaranteed right to a lawyer, but a network of nonprofit organizations offers legal help to immigrants in detention. That network is overstretched, and immigrants are often moved to facilities that are far from legal support groups, said the report by the justice center. The report surveyed 150 immigration detention facilities that accounted for 97% of the detention beds.


“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. “In some facilities, it is impossible for detained immigrants to find attorneys.”

Federal officials said they were making progress in helping provide legal help for detained immigrants.

“ICE is committed to allowing detainees access to telephones, legal counsel and law library resources,” agency spokesman Brian Hale said in a statement. “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 issue of lawyers for immigrant detainees is not new. Last year, the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal group that promotes the right to legal counsel, argued in a report that the government should consider public funding for legal aid to detained immigrants.

Illegal immigrants ordered held are placed in a patchwork of about 350 mostly private facilities, many of them in less populated parts of the country. Detainees often find themselves transferred to facilities far from their homes, families and friends.

Last month, the immigration enforcement agency unveiled an online detainee locator to allow people to find and track those in custody.

“They do seem to be on the road to making some substantial reforms,” said Carl Shusterman, a former immigration official who practices immigration law in Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, Shusterman said, he recently had a client who was transferred to El Paso and a lawyer had to fly out to a hearing to represent the man. He won his case and was not deported.

A 2005 Migration Policy Institute study found that 41% of detainees applying to become lawful permanent residents who had legal counsel won their cases, compared with 21% of those without representation. In asylum cases, 18% of detainees with lawyers were granted asylum, compared with 3% for those without.

Granting immigrants better access to counsel could even save taxpayer money, the immigrant justice group argues, because detainees often would be released sooner, saving the $122-a-day cost of detention.