Federal immigration authorities have made it difficult for immigrants held at two detention centers in Georgia and one in Louisiana to access and communicate with lawyers, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and various individual officials.
The three facilities at issue are the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, and the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana.
“Immigrants at the immigration prisons can be from anywhere in the country, but we tend to see more from Georgia ending up at Irwin, from the Carolinas ending up at Stewart, and from (Alabama), (Mississippi), (Louisiana) and (Tennessee ending up at LaSalle,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “None of this is policy, and it’s not unusual for someone picked up in Georgia to end up as far away as California.”
Many people held in detention facilities have claims that may allow them to stay in the United States or, at least, to remain free while their deportation proceedings are pending, the lawsuit says. Legal representation can ensure that they’re not held unnecessarily for years and frequently determines whether their cases are ultimately successful, the lawsuit says.
These detention facilities are all in remote areas, several hours by car from big cities where lawyers, interpreters and other resources are located, the lawsuit says.
Immigration attorney Arturo Corso said Stewart Detention Center is in a “ghost town,” with a county population of 5,985 according to 2017 U.S. Census estimates.
“There’s no commerce of any kind that would attract any businesses, much less sustain law practices. People that are down there, if they want to get a lawyer, their families have to go to Atlanta to hire someone,” he said.
Remote communication by phone or video link is difficult, and lawyers who do make the trip often face long waits and then have to meet with their clients in inadequate conditions, the lawsuit says.
“DHS intentionally selects private companies who operate immigration prisons as cash cows in remote, rural areas of the Southeast that are beyond the reach of most lawyers,” Southern Poverty Law Center legal director Lisa Graybill said in an emailed statement.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office participates in the 287(g) program, a partnership between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and state or law law enforcement. Information on detainees can be handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further review for anyone booked into the Hall County Jail.
ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer said in an email that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation but added, “lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”
Immigration authorities also fail to ensure that the private contractors running the detention centers don’t provide further barriers to attorney-client visits, including interrupting or listening in on meetings, refusing to allow meetings during facility counts and shift change, not allowing meetings even when visitation rooms are open and arbitrarily changing visitation rules, the lawsuit says.
These private prison companies that run the detention centers have a financial motivation to operate with as small a staff as possible, and many of the access and communication problems that lawyers report are caused by insufficient staffing, the lawsuit says.
Immigration law is extremely complex, and limited access to clients through in-person visits, phone calls and video link makes it difficult for lawyers to gather enough information to adequately prepare for crucial hearings, the lawsuit says.
The Southern Poverty Law Center last year launched the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, saying it wanted to provide high-quality free legal representation and to protect due process rights for people held in immigration detention centers across the Southeast. The program began working at Stewart in April 2017, at Irwin in August and at LaSalle in September.
There are not enough attorney visitation rooms and the ones that exist are inadequate, the lawsuit says, with physical barriers that make it tough for attorneys and clients to establish a relationship and exchange documents. Lawyers can’t bring phones or computers and the rooms don’t have landlines, so they are unable to use remote translation services. There is also evidence that guards and others are able to hear what should be confidential conversations, the lawsuit says.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says many of the obstacles described in the lawsuit — including arbitrary changing of visitation rules and harassment by detention center staff — are targeted specifically at that organization because of its mission and not at other immigration attorneys with clients at the three detention centers.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the detainees’ due process rights and of its own free speech rights which protect its activities as a legal organization. It asks a judge to declare that policies and practices at the three detention centers violate the Constitution and to order that immigration authorities take specific steps to remedy the issues.
Staff writer Nick Watson contributed to this story.