For detained immigrants, a phone call to an attorney can make the difference between safety in the U.S. or deportation back to a country where danger, and often the threat of death, looms. Recently, as an attorney volunteering with the Immigration Justice Campaign and the El Paso Immigration Collaborative (EPIC) to provide remote legal assistance to detained immigrants, I learned that detained immigrants in El Paso-area detention centers are systematically encountering barriers to phone access. Consequently, pro bono attorneys must navigate a Kafkaesque labyrinth simply to represent their clients.
In the past year, after watching the many horrors perpetrated on immigrants by the Trump administration, I put my commercial litigation practice on hold to join the fight. With my own firm, some immigration law background, and fifteen years of litigation experience, I thought I might be able to do something, anything, about what I was seeing take place. I quickly discovered a cadre of fearless, dedicated attorneys located all over the nation, volunteering both on the ground and remotely, trying to assist the approximately 40,000 immigrants being indefinitely held in detention. I joined them.
I accepted the case of a client seeking release from detention on bond. As a basic matter of due process, this case could be done remotely. Like many other asylum-seekers, my client had been languishing in detention for months. The first step in any legal matter is to speak with one’s client, a step that has always been easy enough in my commercial litigation practice. However, at the Otero County Processing Center, located in Chaparral, New Mexico, about a half hour outside of El Paso, Texas, phone communication is practically impossible. In fact, clients must pay enormous fees to call their attorneys.
Immigration detention centers are often run by private companies. The phone systems are controlled by for-profit vendors who charge exorbitant fees—fees that my client, after months of travel to the U.S. and months in detention, could not pay. Under the law, indigent clients must have access to free, private calls to their pro bono counsel. In practice, setting up such calls proved to be a Herculean task. After the second week of waiting for calls from my client that never came, I contacted the detention center staff and was directed to my client’s deportation officer. For more than a month, emails were sent, voicemail messages were left, and EPIC partner organizations even intervened on our behalf. Promises were made that my client would call me. The call never came. After nearly six weeks of back and forth, my client was finally allowed a free, private phone to call his counsel.
Meanwhile, I learned that these barriers were not unique to me. Other volunteers were also being met with empty promises from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that the issue would be resolved, only to see no real solutions implemented. Instead, stopgap measures were being taken, like deportation officers lending clients their personal phones to use in their offices.
Thankfully, I was able to gather enough information on that first call to draft and file his bond motion, and a hearing was scheduled in just a few weeks’ time. So began the arduous process of trying to schedule another call to prepare my client for his hearing. After multiple emails, calls, and much back and forth, just three days before his hearing, my client was finally allowed access to a phone where he could place a free, private call to his counsel. This time there was a new challenge—his phone call was limited to 30 minutes.
I was advised that calls were normally limited to 20 minutes, so rather than fight, I began the task of laying out hearing preparation, also accounting for the time our interpreter would need as I did not speak my client’s native language and he did not speak English. While this was only a bond hearing, the Otero Immigration Court has an asylum claim denial rate of nearly 90%. If he was released on bond, he would reunite with his family, have a supportive environment and better access to experts and critical evidence required to fight his case. This meant we had about 15 minutes—hardly adequate time—to prepare for a hearing that would determine his fate.
Ultimately, even given the immense obstacles we faced, my client was granted bond and released. He is sadly the exception. Detained immigrants facing removal are not guaranteed court-appointed counsel even if they are indigent. If they do somehow secure representation, phone access for meaningful calls with counsel is nearly nonexistent. I have to wonder; is this being done to discourage pro bono representation? If so, the attempt has epically failed, at least with this lawyer. I’ve never been more determined to assist, and I am encouraging every lawyer I know to jump into this fight.