For an asylum seeker who presents himself at the U.S.-Mexico border, there may be no worse place in America to be sent than a jail in a rural pocket of the Deep South.
Asylum seekers are forced by a hostile system to languish in far-flung detention centers with no hope of parole, scant access to lawyers and ultimately little chance of winning their cases, a new lawsuit alleges. Last year, out of 130 asylum seekers in one Immigration and Customs Enforcement district, it says, only two were granted parole.
“When ICE makes strategic decisions about where to ship hundreds of asylum seekers, it has to know the Louisiana field office is not granting relief on parole to anybody,” said Laura Rivera, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of asylum seekers across a district that spans Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The class-action lawsuit filed Thursday aims to block federal immigration officials from issuing blanket denials of parole that force asylum seekers to stay behind bars as they pursue their right to seek refuge in the United States.
The complaint says officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement engage in “sham parole reviews” in some Southern states, causing “irreparable harm” to asylum seekers who have been found to have a credible fear of persecution.
“Hundreds of asylum seekers are incarcerated for months on end, enduring abuses in confinement,” the complaint states.
“ICE’s refusal to consider the release of these asylum seekers on a case-by-case basis violates federal law, costs taxpayers millions of dollars each month, and causes untold suffering to the men and women who seek legal protection inside the United States.”
A spokesperson for ICE, Carissa Cutrel, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation but that the absence of comment should not be construed as agreement with any of the allegations.
“ICE conducts activities in compliance with federal law and agency policy,” Cutrell said.
In the last few months, ICE has dramatically expanded its capacity to detain immigrants in Louisiana, setting up contracts with local for-profit prisons and busing hundreds of asylum seekers from the U.S.-Mexico border to remote rural facilities.
More than 2,000 immigrant detainees are housed in Louisiana's dedicated ICE facilities: LaSalle ICE processing center in Jena and Pine Prairie ICE processing center in Pine Prairie. In addition, ICE has established three new contracts with several Louisiana jails, adding more than 2,500 beds for immigrants since February, according to Bryan Cox, ICE’s Southern region communications director.
The 30-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of plaintiffs across Louisiana and Alabama, says the asylum seekers have followed the law by presenting themselves at official ports of entry on the border and in interviews demonstrated credible fear of persecution.
However, the lawsuit states, high-ranking officials in ICE’s New Orleans field office are flouting a binding 2009 policy that directs ICE to grant parole to asylum seekers who establish their identity and show they are not a flight risk or danger to the community.
In addition to violating formal Department of Homeland Security guidelines, denying parole in the vast majority of asylum cases also violates the Immigration and Nationality Act and the due process clause of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, lawyers for the SPLC argue.
Under the Trump administration, the rate of parole granted to asylum seekers has dropped nationwide. But according to the complaint, asylum seekers face the most daunting odds of release in ICE’s New Orleans field district: The number of asylum seekers granted parole in the district plummeted from 75% in 2016 to 1.5% in 2018.
Without parole, immigrants seeking asylum are forced to fight their legal cases from out-of-the-way jails, often without an attorney, translator or access to legal resources that can help them adequately prepare for their asylum hearing.
“It’s like this chain of bad outcomes all stemming from their detention,” Rivera said. “Because they're detained, they can't get a lawyer for their asylum claim. Because they can't get a lawyer, they don't go into court with the right evidence and procedures to ask for the time they need to fight their case. A lot of these folks, they’re just being zipped right on through without any meaningful chance to prepare their case.”
On top of this, Rivera said, asylum seekers must try their cases before judges hostile to their claims.
One Louisiana immigration judge, Agnelis Reese, heard 144 asylum claims between 2013 and 2018 and denied every single one, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Over the same period, immigrant court judges across the nation had a 57.6% denial rate.
The complaint lists several top immigration officials – including Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Matthew Albence, acting director for ICE — as defendants.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are a diverse range of immigrants from Cuba, Cameroon, Honduras and Venezuela who applied for asylum at official ports of entry at the U.S. border and were transferred to Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.
Some are political dissidents who say they have faced persecution from the police or government in their home country, or physicians who fled when authorities pressured them to harm patients for political reasons. Others applied for asylum as conscientious objectors who refused military service or on the basis of experiencing torture and threats from gangs.
The complaint alleges a long litany of harm to asylum seekers, some identified solely through their initials because they fear persecution if forced to return to their home countries:
Y.A.L., a Cuban political dissident, was denied parole even though his wife is a permanent resident who lives in Miami with their two children and his medical records demonstrate he has gout. Deprived of a medically suitable diet in his seven months in ICE custody, the lawsuit states, he has lost the ability to walk, bathe or use the toilet independently and is now confined to a wheelchair.
Adrián Toledo Flores, a pharmacy technician who fled Cuba after he was beaten and fired from his job for defying orders from state officials to withhold prescription medication from a client, has not met his daughter, a U.S. citizen who was born six months ago. Isolated because his family has been denied visitation privileges, he rarely sleeps and has begun taking antidepressants.
M.R.M.H., an 18-year-old who fled Honduras after MS-13 gang members left him with a broken foot and jaw, has been denied a diet that accounts for his severe allergies. As a result, he has broken out in hives, experienced severe breathing problems, and lost consciousness and been hospitalized several times.
A physician who reviewed M.R.M.H.’s medical records found him at “extremely high risk of dying in ICE custody from a preventable condition.”
An ICE official said the agency spends more than $250 million a year on a wide range of healthcare services for detainees.
“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody, and comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody,” the official said. “Staffing for detainees includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers like physician assistants and nurse practitioners, and a physician. Detainees also have access to dental care and 24-hour emergency care.”
The influx of asylum seekers detained in Louisiana jails comes as the state has been widely celebrated for cutting the number of state inmates in its prisons in a bid to end its reign as the nation’s capital of mass incarceration.
In the last few years, lawmakers have enacted sweeping criminal justice reform, lowering mandatory minimum sentences and increasing parole and probation options, to steer people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison.
Immigrant advocates have watched in dismay as federal officials have quickly made use of the empty space as President Trump’s administration clamps down on immigrants at the southern border.