Pro bono attorneys working at the country's two largest immigrant family detention centers in Texas said Monday that they have been "locked out" after they raised concerns last week that officials were forcing the immigrant mothers they represent to sign legal papers without consulting them.
The complaint comes as the Congressional Progressive Caucus and members of the House Judiciary Committee are preparing to hold a forum on family detention Tuesday that's expected to include testimony from two immigrant women who were detained, a whistle-blower who worked at one of the Texas detention centers and experts on the psychological, developmental and legal implications of family detention.
It also comes after a federal judge in California gave the administration until Aug. 3 to show why she should not hold them to standards for detaining children set out in a 1997 legal settlement, potentially ending family detention.
A Homeland Security spokeswoman has said they are preparing a response for the judge.
The Obama administration has expanded family detention during the last year following a surge of tens of thousands of immigrant families on the Texas border last summer, mostly from Central America. They went from one 95-bed family detention center in Pennsylvania to three built to house 3,700 by year's end.
On Monday, four national immigration lawyers groups working at the two newer, larger detention centers south of San Antonio in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas, sent a letter to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement demanding it "account for the cascade of due process violations and detrimental practices."
The groups that wrote to ICE include Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) and the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. (AILA). They jointly provide legal services to mothers and children detained at the Texas detention centers through the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.
CARA lead attorney Brian Hoffman said that in recent weeks, staff and volunteers have witnessed ICE officials "coercing women into accepting ankle monitors, denying access to legal counsel and impeding pro bono representation, along with mass disorganization and confusion in implementing the new release policy for mothers who fled violence and who are pursuing protection in the United States."
Gillian Christensen, ICE press secretary, said the agency would review the claims and "respond directly to AILA."
"ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. The agency is committed to ensuring that individuals housed in our family residential centers have care and resources," Christensen said.
"DHS has determined reconsideration is appropriate for custody decisions of arriving families who have established eligibility for asylum, or other relief under our laws. Understanding the sensitive and unique nature of housing families, ICE is evaluating cases of residents at the agency's family residential centers," Christensen added. "Going forward, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children, absent a threat to public safety or national security, if they have received a positive finding for credible or reasonable fear and the individual has provided a verifiable residential address."
Pablo Paez, a spokesman for the Geo Group, the federal contractor that runs the Karnes facility, referred questions to ICE but also released a statement saying it refutes any allegations of misconduct:
"The Karnes County Residential Center provides high quality care in a safe, clean, and family friendly environment, and onsite U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE's Family Residential Standards. Our company has consistently, strongly denied allegations to the contrary."
He said Geo officials at Karnes have "created an open and transparent policy of allowing visits to the center by the public, elected local and national officials, federal officials from ICE and other government agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations."
A spokesman for the Corrections Corp. of America, the federal contractor that runs the Dilley facility, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the letter.
Among incidents raised in their letter:
-- Lawyers locked out:
Last Friday, the attorneys allege that ICE officials and guards at the detention center in Dilley locked attorneys out of a courtroom, telling the attorneys they could not enter until the hearings began and letting them in five minutes ahead of time. When an attorney informed the presiding immigration judge, the judge pushed all of the hearings back by an hour.
The same day, psychologists who were pre-cleared for entry into the Dilley facility at the request of pro bono attorneys to examine their clients and establish their asylum claims were "abruptly and without notice refused entry into the facility." That afternoon, a pro bono attorney was removed from the facility "while in the midst of a client interview and without explanation, and denied further admittance," according to the letter.
A spokesman for ICE, in a statement issued Monday evening, said of the attorney being removed: "A pro-bono attorney, who was disruptive to operations at the South Texas Family Residential Center, was asked to leave and is no longer authorized at the facility."
In May, support personnel who had been cleared to enter the detention center in Karnes City, Texas, and the west wing of the White House were refused entry at Dilley, the letter alleges, "without reasonable explanation."
-- Coercive use of ankle monitors:
The attorneys allege that ICE officials at the Dilley detention center have summoned women to fake "court" appointments using Post-it notes instructing them, "Ir a corte" (Go to court) within 30 minutes. Once inside the courtroom trailer, ICE officials told the women that ankle monitors were a condition of their release, even for those who had already had their bond set by a judge.
One woman told attorneys she signed an ankle monitor agreement with ICE "under duress" after being denied access to counsel. Another told attorneys that when her uncle attempted to pay her bond in New York, in accordance with an immigration judge's order, ICE refused to accept payment because she had not received an ankle monitor.
A woman at the Dilley facility told attorneys that Thursday night, officials went room to room demanding the names of women who told attorneys about problems with the ankle monitors. "These officials emphasized that they wanted the mothers' names. The client reported that the angry officials told the mothers that lawyers have nothing to do with this matter," the letter said.
Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a new policy supposedly speeding the release of women who had passed an initial asylum interview. ICE officials also announced added oversight and case reviews intended to improve family detention. An ICE spokeswoman has defended family detention, citing those improvements.
But Hoffman said those improvements appear to have made little difference, according to reports from volunteers they work with who visit families in detention and help them catch buses once they are released.
"Volunteers at the San Antonio bus station have found many families do not understand the terms of their release, and even where they have been handed important documents, they are in English so Spanish or indigenous language speakers do not understand," Hoffman said.
"Mothers who have been shackled with an ankle monitor have no idea how or when to charge the device, and their deportation officers refused to explain or answer questions before release."
Hoffman also said his group has pleaded "with ICE to be allowed to help prepare the mothers to understand their rights and obligations upon release through pre-release orientations, meaning a daily briefing to explain the women's rights, any reporting obligations, the importance of appearing for all scheduled court appearances, how to file an asylum application in advance of the one-year filing deadline, and how to connect with pro bono attorneys in their cities of destination."
He said that "although those requests were initially received with enthusiasm" by ICE officials, "nothing has yet been implemented."
Richard Rocha, a spokesman for ICE in Texas, said it was preparing a response to the letter on Monday.
He has noted in the past that immigrant women at the detention centers received "know your rights" presentations, pointing out one that was underway for several dozen mothers in the detention center chapel in Dilley during a recent tour.
The South Texas Family Residential center in Dilley, the largest of the three family detention centers with 2,400 beds, is run by Corrections Corp. of America, which sub-contracts with another company, American Gateways, to do the legal presentations.
FOR THE RECORD
This story described American Gateways as a company contracted by another company to provide legal presentations at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Actually, American Gateways is a nonprofit organization. It is not a subcontractor and was granted clearance to provide immigration legal services at the center after vetting by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Hoffman said pro bono lawyers would like to work with the company, but have so far been unable to because they do not have access to that part of the detention center.