Report finds immigration detainee legal rights widely neglected

The rights of detainees held on immigration charges are neglected, including fundamental rights like the right to legal counsel. Although a network of organizations has formed to try to provide detainees with lawyers, the detention system often fails to provide access to attorneys– in many cases simply because detention centers are located too far away from legal aid organizations. Those are the findings released today by the National Immigrant Justice Center.

More than 80 percent of detainees in the survey were housed in isolated facilities far from legal aid organizations, creating heavy caseloads of 100 detainees per attorney, The Los Angeles Times reported. Another 10 percent had no access to legal representation:

“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.”

ICE has attempted to reform its detention system, but human rights groups have argued more reform is necessary. One major issue is that immigrants must know — or be told — some of their rights so they can seek out legal representation. The survey found that more than half of facilities did not offer detainees information about their rights.

The Justice Department provides a list of free legal service providers in many areas, and large detention centers often have libraries with information on the legal system. But these services vary from center to center. Ultimately, access to a lawyer can have a huge impact on the outcome of a detainee’s case:

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.

Migration Policy Institute argued that granting better access to lawyers would save money by making the process more efficient — saving some of the $122 per day costs of detention.

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Elise Foley

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