Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have made it purposefully difficult for detained immigrants to be able to access legal representation, and it’s all been right out there in the open.
In one example, ICE gladly used the pandemic to try to block lawyers from seeing their clients, by requiring them to bring their own face masks. This doesn’t seem like a big ask in March 2022. But this was March 2020, when even medical professionals couldn’t get masks. Even when attorneys were actually able to get protective gear, ICE blocked them anyway.
So it comes at a surprise that ICE is now claiming that its offered detained people “’unabated’ access to lawyers during the pandemic”—and made this outrageous lie in a report to Congress, Roll Call reports. But the mass detention agency also admitted in the report that it doesn’t track attorney access violations.
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American Immigration Council called ICE’s access claim “blatantly false,” pointing to a letter last fall signed by nearly 100 organizations “highlighting the ‘host of obstacles’ to attorney access in ICE detention facilities nationwide.” But ICE has not bothered to respond to the letter, the organization said.
Immigrant and civil rights advocates in that letter described immigration detention facilities where officials have “systematically restricted the most basic modes of communication that detained people need to connect with their lawyers and the rest of the outside world, including phones, mail, and email access,” American Immigration Council staff attorney Emma Winger and ACLU National Prison Project senior staff attorney Eunice Cho said.
They also wrote that “many ICE facilities routinely refuse to allow attorneys to schedule calls with their clients.” They noted that when ICE facilities do allow calls, they often cut them short, “leaving legal providers like the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona unable to complete intakes for potential clients in complex immigration cases in less than 20 minutes.” It’s not like immigration law is incredibly complicated or anything.
So what’s in all this for ICE? Well, the agency has access to the exact same facts that we do, which is that when detained immigrants can access legal help, they’re 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond, and up to ten times more likely to be able to remain here in the United States. It’s why it fights so hard to block people from their rights.
ICE bold lies left advocates in disbelief (though ICE commonly, and shamelessly, lies). But when are we not in disbelief at ICE? Immigrant and civil rights advocates have since submitted a rebuttal memo to congressional appropriators, where they write that the mass detention agency “omits key facts and blatantly misstates others.”
“[O]ur own legal teams throughout the country face daily, grueling obstacles in communicating with and effectively representing their detained clients, obstacles that have been compounded during the pandemic,” organizations said. “ICE’s representations regarding phone and video-conference access are frequently belied by on-the-ground challenges including subcontractors' belligerence, technology difficulties, or complex and opaque processes that even trained attorneys struggle to understand.” Like previously noted, ICE was also forced under court order to restore a free legal hotline it shut down after it was featured on the Emmy-winning Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.
But Roll Call reports that ICE’s report “also surprised congressional aides,” who called it “very disingenuous.” Lawmakers should start holding ICE accountable by approving the Biden administration’s request for thousands fewer immigration detention beds.
“The @ICEgov report is short of facts and long on misleading statements,” American Immigration Council continued in a tweet. “It shows ICE doesn’t take seriously its responsibility—mandated by the Constitution and immigration law—to ensure meaningful access to counsel for everyone in its custody. The only way to eliminate the barriers to access to counsel for people in detention is to release them.”
”We are dismayed by ICE’s cavalier and disingenuous approach to this gravely serious topic,” National Immigrant Justice Center said. “ICE must begin addressing the severe obstacles to legal access that individuals in detention face routinely throughout the nation, and members of Congress must hold the agency accountable for its failings.”
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