ICE to Change Phone Rules for Immigrants

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Federal immigration officials will pay $405,000 and change phone policies for immigrants in some California detention centers to settle charges they violated detainees’ rights by restricting phone calls.
     U.S. District Judge Edward M. Chen on Wednesday granted preliminary approval of the settlement between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a class of immigrant detainees locked up in detention facilities in four Northern California counties, saying ICE had addressed all of the phone access issues the plaintiffs had flagged.
     Audley Barrington Lyon Jr. and three other detainees sued ICE in 2013 for violating the statutory and constitutional rights of immigrants held in detention facilities in Contra Costa, Kern, Sacramento and Yuba counties. The plaintiffs said ICE makes it so difficult to call their lawyers and gather evidence that they can’t obtain fair hearings — resulting in the deportation of many detainees who are actually eligible to stay in the United States.
     Chen said the case had helped clarify the legal issues surrounding detainees’ due process rights relating to their right to be able to contact attorneys and gather evidence.
     “It’s clear [these issues] were not all that clear in the law,” the judge said.
     Four facilities were named in the class action, including Yuba County Jail, Rio Consumnes Correctional Center in Sacramento County, West County Detention Facility in Contra Costa County and Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Kern County. ICE contracts with those counties to hold immigrants during their deportation proceedings.
     Under the terms of the settlement, ICE will be required to provide detainees with phone access to more approved attorneys and government agencies and the calls won’t be monitored. The calls will connect even if a voicemail system answers, allowing detainees to leave messages. Currently, a call is dropped if a live person doesn’t answer the phone.
     Detainees will also be able to use the phone any time during the day, and automatic cut-off times will be extended from 20 minutes to 40 in most cases. Detainees who can’t afford to make calls will be given phone credit.
     The plaintiffs say being able to speak with their lawyers and government agencies freely is imperative to getting a fair decision in their deportation proceedings.
     Of all deportation cases in San Francisco in 2011, only 34 percent of detainees were able to secure an attorney, compared to 75 percent of those not detained. And only 11 percent of detainees obtained successful decisions, compared to 59 percent of respondents who weren’t detained.
     “The settlement provides feasible alternatives that should be adopted by ICE,” Julia Mass, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who represented the plaintiffs, said. “We think it can be a model for facilities throughout the United States.”
     Many immigrants held in the four named facilities spend up to 22 hours a day confined to their cells and are only allowed to make calls outside business hours, according to the complaint. When they do get to a phone during business hours, calls are dropped if a live person doesn’t answer, prohibiting them from leaving messages.
     The plaintiffs say ICE’s restrictions make it nearly impossible for detainees to talk to their attorneys or even secure legal counsel. Getting in touch with a government agency or hospital to gather documents for their hearings is similarly difficult. And even if they can get to a phone, many detainees can’t afford ICE’s exorbitant phone fees.
     At the West County Detention Facility, a long-distance call costs 25 cents a minute, plus a $3.00 connection fee. Calls are dropped after 15 minutes and callers must pay a new connection fee to keep talking, according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs are represented by Julia Mass, Angelica Salceda, Christine Sun and Michael Risher of the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Northern California in San Francisco and Carl Takei of the ACLU’s National Prison Project in Washington, along with the firms Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale in San Francisco.
     ICE is represented by U.S. Justice Department attorney Katherine Shinners.

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