De­tained but not rep­re­sented

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

Fed­eral pol­icy on im­mi­gra­tion has tilted to­ward en­force­ment in re­cent years, and the num­ber of de­por­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings has risen sharply. As a re­sult, the nation’s de­ten­tion cen­ters, where im­mi­grants of­ten are held while their cases are ad­ju­di­cated, have be­come in­creas­ingly over­bur­dened. One of the many neg­a­tive con­se­quences of the 60% in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple held since 2004 is de­tainees’ dwin­dling ac­cess to le­gal coun­sel.

Hav­ing a lawyer makes a dif­fer­ence. A 2005 Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute study found that the odds of suc­cess dou­ble when de­tainees seek­ing to be­come law­ful per­ma­nent cit­i­zens have attorneys. For those seek­ing asy­lum, the odds of suc­cess in­crease six­fold. Also, in many cases attorneys suc­ceed not by help­ing de­tainees re­main in the United States but by as­sist­ing ef­forts to speed de­por­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings, free­ing them to re­turn home.

Yet a re­cent re­port by the Chicago-based Na­tional Im­mi­grant Jus­tice Cen­ter found that 80% of de­tainees are held in fa­cil­i­ties whose lo­ca­tion makes it dif­fi­cult to find and re­tain an at­tor­ney. The de­ten­tion cen­ter in El Cen­tro, for ex­am­ple, has more de­tainees than any other in the coun­try, but be­cause of its lo­ca­tion, they have the least ac­cess to attorneys. At more than a quar­ter of the nation’s 300 fa­cil­i­ties, there is no ac­cess at all to le­gal aid from the non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide low-cost and pro bono attorneys for de­tainees, and the fed­eral govern­ment’s le­gal ori­en­ta­tion pro­grams— which are not an ad­e­quate sub­sti­tute for an at­tor­ney but are nev­er­the­less of much as­sis­tance — are avail­able in only 17% of fa­cil­i­ties. Lastly, rules reg­u­lat­ing tele­phone ac­cess to attorneys are cum­ber­some to the point of hin­der­ing ac­cess.

Some of the rec­om­men­da­tions in the re­port, such as ex­pand­ing le­gal ori­en­ta­tion pro­grams to all fa­cil­i­ties and eas­ing tele­phone re­stric­tions for de­tainees call­ing lawyers, seem ob­vi­ous steps that need to be taken. Oth­ers, how­ever, re­quire a re­think­ing of de­ten­tion that would min­i­mize the pop­u­la­tion be­ing held. The U.S. spends $5.9 bil­lion an­nu­ally hold­ing thou­sands of peo­ple who have not been ac­cused of a crime and pose no threat to so­ci­ety. Surely some of them could be placed on a form of pa­role or un­der house ar­rest, re­duc­ing ex­penses for tax­pay­ers and in­creas­ing ac­cess to le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

To be fair, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice has made progress in im­prov­ing over­all con­di­tions in the de­ten­tion cen­ters, and of­fi­cials main­tain that it is equally com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing de­tainees’ ac­cess to le­gal coun­sel. To that end, the depart­ment should give se­ri­ous weight to sug­ges­tions from those who work most closely with those be­ing held.

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