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Due process: Remote immigration prisons impede access to attorneys, chances for success

The Stewart Detention Center where Mateo was held sits in Lumpkin, Georgia, about 150 miles south of Atlanta. With a capacity of 1,996 people, it is one of the nation’s largest immigration prisons. In one important way, however, Stewart is like many other such facilities: It is far from cities where detainees would have easier access to counsel

Due process: Remote immigration prisons impede access to attorneys, chances for success is part of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s No End in Sight report. Read the full report.

Almost 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, for example, is the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, which ordinarily holds more than 700 migrants at any given time. And more than 220 miles north of New Orleans is Louisiana’s LaSalle ICE Processing Center, which can hold up to 1,200 people.

Given the remoteness of these facilities, there should be little surprise that people confined to them, such as Mateo, are among the least likely to have a lawyer, despite having the right to an attorney at their own expense when facing a violation of immigration law, a civil infraction.1

When researchers examined representation at removal proceedings from FY 2007 through FY 2012, they found that 66 percent of people who were not detained had lawyers, but only 14 percent of detained immigrants had counsel.2

Small cities with populations of less than 50,000 had the lowest representation rates for detainees – 10 percent over the six-year period studied.3 In Lumpkin, Georgia, where the Stewart Immigration Court is located, only 6 percent of people had a lawyer.4

The same dismal representation rate was found in Louisiana’s Oakdale Immigration Court. These findings mean almost 19 out of 20 detained people were alone as they faced deportation proceedings that carry potentially life or death consequences.

The attorney advantage

Many attorneys do not represent people in detention because of the significant time constraints and investment required. In addition to the case work, the travel and wait times for meeting with a client at these remote facilities are frequently too great to justify taking a case.

Immigration law, however, has been described as “second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity.”5 Competent counsel improves case outcomes at every step. Detained immigrants represented by counsel were more than twice as likely to be granted a bond hearing and about four times as likely to win bond hearings compared to detainees without counsel.6

The advantage of legal representation is also evident at the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), a project that provides pro bono legal representation to detained immigrants. During its first year of operation in 2017, SIFI’s bond grant rate was 58 percent.

Overall, national data shows that immigrants who were released from detention and had a lawyer were five-and-a-half times more likely to win their cases than those without counsel.7 Immigrants who remained detained were 10-and-a-half times more likely to succeed in their cases if they had lawyers.8

Other obstacles

Detainees with counsel, however, have encountered other obstacles preventing effective representation, such as a lack of meeting spaces at these facilities. Both the LaSalle and Irwin immigration prisons have only one meeting room for as many as 1,200 detained immigrants. At Stewart, there are three rooms for over 2,000 detainees.

Facility policies and practices also systematically undermine effective representation. The SPLC found that at all three facilities, staffers unjustifiably interrupt attorney-client visits, deny meetings during head counts and shift changes, and force attorneys to wait hours to meet with a single client.

Guards also prevent attorneys from seeing clients even when visitation rooms are available, frequently and arbitrarily change visitation rules, and listen in on attorney-client conversations. They also unreasonably delay attorney-client discussions by phone or video conference.

In-person visits are complicated by visitation rooms where clients are behind a glass window, which makes communication and exchange of documents difficult. Some immigration prisons’ electronic device bans also create obstacles for attorneys.

For example, such bans prevent attorneys from using smartphones to call translation services or use translation apps to speak with clients. And many of the visitation rooms encountered by the SPLC lack landlines that would allow an attorney to call a translation service. As a result, an attorney may be unable to communicate with a client unless an interpreter willing to come to the facility can be found – a difficult prospect, particularly if few interpreters speak the client’s language.

As a result of the obstacles the SPLC has encountered, it filed a federal lawsuit against DHS in April 2018. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, describes how detainees at the Stewart, LaSalle and Irwin facilities are prevented from accessing counsel – violating their Fifth Amendment due process rights and the attorneys’ First Amendment free speech rights.


1 See INA § 240(b)(4)(A) (recognizing “privilege of being represented, at no expense to the Government, by counsel of the alien’s choosing…”). Back to report.

2 Ingrid V. Eagly & Steven Shafer, A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court, 164 U. Pa.L. Rev. 1, 2 (2015). Back to report.

3 Id. at 10. Back to report.

4 Id. at 9. Back to report.

5 Castro-O’Ryan v. INS, 847 F.2d 1307, 1312 (9th Cir. 1987). Back to report.

6 Eagly & Shafer at 16-17. Back to report.

7 Id. at 19. Back to report.

8 Id. Back to report.