(CN) — As a legal director at the immigrant rights group RAICES, Javier Hidalgo used to help provide free legal aid to migrants at the Laredo Processing Center in Texas.
RAICES – short for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services - stopped doing so in April, after Hidalgo said detention center policies made it too hard for the group to work there.
Even though the center is hours away from the RAICES offices in San Antonio, it doesn’t offer migrants a reliable or secure way to meet with attorneys remotely. Detainees had to call from public pay phones. When lawyers sent legal mail to clients, guards allegedly opened and screened the letters when they were clearly marked confidential.
Even when attorneys did make it to Laredo, they still faced other obstacles. Lawyers couldn’t bring computers or printers into the center and instead had to use pens and paper. They often had to meet with clients in a public area, allowing nearby guards to hear what were supposed to be private legal consultations.
Interpreters also had to be approved by the detention center — a process that could take up to a year.
“We haven’t taken cases there in several months now because of these access issues,” Hidalgo said in an interview. “If these issues clear up, we’d start providing services there again.” Besides the many difficulties in contacting clients, he said, the hours of driving between San Antonio and Laredo had “really started eating into the services we could provide elsewhere."
Concerns like these are the basis of a major new lawsuit over the ability of migrants to access lawyers. Filed in October in a federal court in Washington, D.C., it counts a variety of immigration and civil rights groups, including RAICES, as plaintiffs.
Detained migrants are legally entitled to speak with attorneys — and yet the U.S. immigration system regularly impedes on “basic modes of communication” between migrants and their lawyers, the lawsuit alleges. In the process, the suit accuses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of violating not just federal law and the U.S. Constitution but also its own policies, including requirements outlined in the agency’s national detention standards.
ICE did not respond to requests for comment. On Friday, lawyers for the agency asked a judge for more time to file a response in court.
At the Laredo Processing Center, run by the private-prison company CoreCivic, the warden did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In court, attorneys for the migrant rights groups have filed hundreds of pages describing alleged problems with the detention centers. Among them are internal reviews of the centers conducted by ICE, showing the agency was aware of noted “deficiencies."
They also submitted a memo from ICE to Congress this year outlining the agency's responsibility to protect due process. According to that memo, "all noncitizens have the right to be represented by an attorney," and "ICE actively supports access to legal representation."
Emma Winger, an attorney with the nonprofit American Immigration Council, is representing migrants and rights groups in the suit. In an interview, she said officials at ICE and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, aren’t doing enough to maintain consistent standards.
While ICE protects legal access for migrants “in a piecemeal fashion,” it doesn’t “ensure uniform policies that provide meaningful access to counsel” across all detention centers, Winger said. As a result, lawyers allegedly run into wildly different rules and regulations depending on where their client is detained.
The lawsuit names four facilities, including the Laredo Processing Center. All four erect slightly different barriers for migrants and their lawyers, according to the suit.