WASHINGTON (CN) – A pro bono legal service claims a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that requires agency approval before lawyers call in mental health evaluations for detainees forces attorneys to choose between properly representing their clients and being able to access the facility that houses them.
In a complaint filed last week in Washington, D.C., federal court, The Dilley Pro Bono Project – which represents families at ICE’s largest family detention facility near Dilley, Texas – claims the new policy requires lawyers to seek agency approval before conducting mental health evaluations over the phone, a previously routine service that went on without agency action.
The policy change gives the government control of a key piece of evidence that could help the group’s clients win asylum, according to the June 1 complaint.
“Because the mothers and children held in STFRC have fled some of the most violent countries in the world, a mental health evaluation is often a crucial piece of evidence for them,” the group claims in the complaint, using the acronym for the Dilley facility. “Such an evaluation can bolster an asylum seeker’s credibility by establishing that the trauma she has suffered impeded her ability to recount the circumstances that prompted her flight to the United States.”
From the time the facility was built in 2014 to the creation of the new policy in May, ICE allowed lawyers representing detainees to enter the Dilley facility, where there are offices for confidential meetings and phone lines that lawyers could use to dial in mental health professionals who could weigh in on behalf of the detainees, according to the complaint.
That changed last month, when ICE revoked the license of one of the Dilley Project’s legal assistants, preventing her from entering the facility after she set up a mental health evaluation for one of her clients.
The assistant, Caroline Perris, had arranged an phone evaluation of one of her clients in March and submitted a request form a few hours before the call took place in order “to avoid needless controversy,” according to the 24-page complaint.
It took ICE several weeks to approve her request, but on March 17, two weeks after the evaluation, the agency revoked Perris’ license to visit the Dilley facility, the lawsuit states.
It was only when Perris appealed the revocation of her license that ICE mentioned the new requirement that it approve requests for mental health evaluations over the phone, according to the complaint.
The Dilley Project claims the new policy has a chilling effect on its lawyers’ ability to represent their clients because they know ICE will often take weeks to respond to their requests.
The group also says the requirement stretches already thin resources even thinner and puts lawyers in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between properly representing their client and having their rights to visit the facility revoked.
“ICE’s final agency actions have caused plaintiffs to suffer injuries in fact,” the complaint states. “In particular, those actions have undermined DPBP’s mission to provide legal services for families detained at STFRC and have harmed plaintiffs by interfering with their First Amendment rights to associate with the mothers and children that they aim to serve.”
The Dilley Project seeks an order reinstating Perris’ license as well as an injunction against the new policy. It is represented by American Immigration Council’s Melissa Crow and Amanda Davidoff with Sullivan & Cromwell, both in Washington, D.C.
The complaint names as defendants ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, its secretary, John Kelly, ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan and Daniel Bible, the director of ICE’s San Antonio field office.
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on the suit, citing agency policy to not comment on pending litigation.