Our VoiceImmigrationNews & Politics

Isolated in Detention

Guest Blogger • Oct 23, 2010

If you squint at the center of the horizon in the photo on the right, you will see the Tri-County Detention Center in Ullin, Illinois.  It is 354 miles from Chicago and 156 miles from St. Louis.  It is number ten of the ten most isolated detention centers such as the Hardin County Law Enforcement Center in Eldora, Iowa, 212 miles to the nearest city, or Chippewa County Jail in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, 346 miles from a major city.

There are an estimated 32,000 women and men detained every night by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), most in detention centers like this one that are extremely remote from families, friends, clergy, and lawyers, and not remotely committed to providing “justice for all.”

A recent survey of U.S. immigration detention facilities by Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) shows that as the Obama administration detains more immigrants than ever before, many lack access to affordable legal services because they are held in remote locations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are unable to meet the staggering demand for legal assistance. The report, Isolated in Detention: Limited Access to Counsel in Immigration Detention Facilities Jeopardizes a Fair Day in Court, also finds that policies that restrict detainees from contacting lawyers by phone make the isolation even worse for these men, women, and children.

If the immigrants had been charged with a crime, they would be able to get a public defender, who is a licensed attorney, assigned to represent people who desire legal representation but who cannot afford to hire a privately retained attorney.  But immigration proceedings are not in criminal courts, because they are considered administrative issues.  So detainees must hire a private attorney if they have the means, or else find one of the 102 non-governmental organizations that can provide legal services for detainees.  Most of these NGO’s have fewer than five employees and are woefully underfunded.

Why it matters:

Immigrants with lawyers win twice as often.  Asylees with lawyers win six times more often.  A 2005 Migration Policy Institute study found that 41 percent of detained individuals applying to become lawful permanent residents who had legal counsel won their cases, compared to 21 percent of those without representation. In asylum cases, 18 percent of detainees with legal representation were granted asylum, compared to only three percent without legal representation. Under U.S. law, individuals in immigration proceedings are not granted court-appointed counsel, so detained immigrants must find a way to locate and pay for attorneys from detention.  Imagine how much more difficult it is to get a lawyer when it is an eight-hour round trip drive to the detention center and almost impossible to make a phone call.

“Our survey found that the government is detaining thousands of men and women in remote facilities where they have extremely limited access to counsel.” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director, National Immigrant Justice Center. “In some facilities, it is impossible for detained immigrants to find attorneys. As long as the government chooses to engage in the unnecessary, expensive and inhumane detention of men, women, and children who are not dangers to our communities, significant barriers will prevent a fair day in court for detainees.”

Who benefits: for-profit prisons

The detention centers are a patchwork of county jails and privately owned for-profit prisons, that have policies and procedures that reduce access from lawyers.  They all make more money when detainees do not know their legal rights.  A 2009 study by the Special Advisor on Detention and Removal showed that detainees who saw a Legal Orientation Program (LOP) moved through the immigration courts 13 days more quickly than detainees without access to these programs.  The cost of immigration detention in the current system is $122 per detainee per day, so that 13 additional days of detention cost the taxpayers an extra $1,586 per person – significant revenue to for-profit prisons.  In comparison, in 2009, The Department of Justice funded LOP’s for 60,000 detainees with a budget of $4 million – a one-time cost of about $66 per detainee.

“Without fundamental change in the U.S. government’s approach to immigration enforcement, Americans will continue to pay a high price for an unsustainable system that erodes American ideals of justice and human rights.” McCarthy said.

To see the nine recommendations to improve access to legal counsel for detained immigrants for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, download the full report at www.immigrantjustice.org/isolatedindetention.

Photo credit:  National Immigrant Justice Center

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