Three hours south of Atlanta in the town of Lumpkin, Ga., hundreds of immigrants are being held in Stewart Detention Center with virtually no access to lawyers.
It's a basic principle of the U.S. justice system that all people, no matter their citizenship status, are guaranteed due process. Yet, 94 percent of immigrants in this prison-like detention center lack representation. And both U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its for-profit prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), continue to erect barriers that prevent them from finding help.
In March, a coalition of pro bono attorneys, law school clinical programs, non-profit legal organizations and private immigration lawyers urged ICE, CCA and Stewart County to fulfill the terms of a 2014 contract requiring CCA to install video teleconferencing and to institute policies and procedures ensuring that detainees have access to representation. ICE responded with a brief letter in late May that failed to address these pressing legal concerns and instead simply promised to repair a couple of broken telephones.
Anybody who is detained has the right to confer with a lawyer. But for years, CCA guards have prevented attorneys from meeting with detainees by creating unreasonable delays. Even when a lawyer succeeds in setting up a meeting with a detainee, he or she must speak to the client via phone through a Plexiglass barrier - and the phones are often broken, leaving the lawyer to yell his advice through the Plexiglass. A number of lawyers have stopped practicing at the detention center, citing inconsistent practices involving attorney-client meetings and harassment by facility staffers.
Elizabeth Hildebrand Matherne, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney, reported that every time she goes to Stewart, a guard finds a new reason to put her through arbitrary procedures or refuses to allow her to meet with a client. "Detainees desperately need help with their asylum cases, but the lawyers and expert witnesses who attempt to assist them are humiliated and run through the ringer as a result of poor policies and uncooperative staff," she said.
ICE recently settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union to provide better telephone access to immigrants detained in California. CCA's management at Stewart Detention Center and ICE should take heed of this decision and stop obstructing access to counsel at Stewart immediately.
This issue has nothing to do with heated rhetoric about building a wall on the border. It's simply about due process and fairness, basic tenets of our legal system.
It's about giving people like Jose the right to representation to put forward their best case in immigration proceedings. Jose is a 30-year-old activist who fled El Salvador after receiving death threats from a rival political party. He was first detained in Texas, where he had a lawyer, but his lawyer could not reach him after he was transferred to Stewart, and withdrew from representing him. Unable to find another lawyer, Jose lost his asylum case, and was deported after six months at Stewart. Back in El Salvador, he lives in fear that the next time, the death threats against him will be realized.
Without an attorney, detainees like Jose, even those with strong cases, fight a losing battle. The odds are stacked against them at the immigration court adjacent to Stewart Detention Center, where more pleas for relief are denied than in any other immigration court in the country. To have a chance at relief, immigrants need assistance in navigating complex immigration proceedings.
A video teleconferencing system was the only chance Jose had to avoid the uncertain fate he now faces in El Salvador. It's an easy and cost-effective solution to implement - and the government is already paying for it via its contract with CCA. It's unacceptable that CCA, a company with hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts, has failed to fulfill the requirements of its contract, must less ensure that constitutional standards are met in its facilities.
It's past time for the government to hold its contractor accountable for its failure to comply with core principles of justice.