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SPLC sues DHS for unconstitutionally blocking detained immigrants' access to lawyers

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is violating the Constitution by blocking immigrants held in extremely isolated civil immigration prisons from accessing lawyers, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the SPLC.

The suit is the first of its kind to highlight decades-long, widespread DHS violations of detained immigrants’ rightful access to counsel in civil immigration prisons in multiple facilities in the Southeast.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, names as defendants the DHS, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), and high-level federal officials, all of whom are responsible for ensuring that the conditions of immigration detention comply with constitutional requirements.

The United States detains hundreds of thousands of noncitizens each year in a sprawling web of immigration prisons around the country. Many immigrants have been here for years and have strong family and community ties, while others have arrived more recently, frequently after fleeing persecution in their home countries.

A substantial number of noncitizens are eligible for release on bond or their own recognizance, and many have compelling claims for relief. Yet without lawyers, they are significantly less likely to succeed in petitions for bond or to prevail on the merits of their claims, instead languishing in detention or being deported to face an uncertain fate and possibly death.

In 2017, to address the very low rates of representation, bond and relief at immigration prisons in the southeastern United States, the SPLC launched the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) , a project that enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast. About 250 volunteers, including attorneys, law students and interpreters, have come to the South to offer free assistance, only to have client meetings delayed or denied, or they have been unable to communicate with clients due to limits on electronics that can facilitate interpretation.

“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,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Their profit model is to simply warehouse as many people as they can for as long as they can, and they resist having to accommodate legal visits while remaining immune from any scrutiny or oversight. With this lawsuit, we are demanding that DHS be held accountable for the choices it makes.”

In addition to litigating the case, the SPLC is also the named plaintiff in the suit on behalf of itself and its clients who are detained at LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana; Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia; and Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Serving as the SPLC’s co-counsel are Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP and the Law Office of Melissa Crow.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees people in removal proceedings the right to a lawyer at their own expense and a full and fair hearing. In spite of these constitutional commands, the suit alleges that the defendants maintain policies and practices that prevent detainees at LaSalle, Irwin and Stewart from meaningfully accessing and communicating with legal counsel and prevent the SPLC from effectively representing them.

According to the suit, these facilities lack a sufficient number of attorney-visitation rooms. For example, the LaSalle Detention Center has only one attorney-visitation room for up to 1,200 noncitizen detainees. As a result, SPLC attorneys and volunteers are frequently forced to wait for hours – often as long as two or three hours – in order to see a single client, and sometimes are blocked from seeing their clients altogether. The suit also describes the hostile and obstructive conduct toward legal visitation at these facilities.

The obstacles to accessing legal counsel at LaSalle, Irwin and Stewart are not anomalous but rather reflect the defendants’ long-standing and protracted policy of detaining noncitizens in remote locations to speed up the national deportation machine.

The LaSalle, Irwin and Stewart facilities have among the lowest attorney representation rates in the country, and the impact is substantial. According to a recent SPLC report on shadow prisons, immigrant detainees with access to lawyers are 10.5 times more likely to win their cases, compared to detainees without a lawyer.

Once released from detention, detainees with lawyers are nearly 20 times more likely to prevail in their cases than detainees who represent themselves. Meanwhile, people with lawyers are almost seven times more likely to be released from detention centers if they have the help of a lawyer.

“Without these unnecessary barriers, we could help so many more immigrants,” said Daniel Werner, director of SIFI. “We are encouraged and inspired by the volunteers who have traveled from all over the U.S. to donate their time, but frustrated and saddened by the limitations on our ability to deploy them.”

The suit also alleges that the defendants’ conduct violates the SPLC’s First Amendment right to represent civil detainees.