No Phone Calls for Many Detainees

A U.S. Border Patrol officer directs illegal immigrants into a holding cell. GAO investigators report overcrowding in several detention facilities.
A U.S. Border Patrol officer directs illegal immigrants into a holding cell. GAO investigators report overcrowding in several detention facilities. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

The number of immigrants detained by the United States has grown from 90,000 to 283,000 over the past five years, and many were improperly barred from making even a single phone call to a lawyer, congressional investigators reported this week.

Detainees' calls were completed 35 to 74 percent of the time each month between November 2005 and November 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm.

The United States uses a criminal-detention model to hold immigrants, although most are charged with administrative violations of immigration laws. The detainees are not guaranteed the protections routinely provided to U.S. citizens or criminal defendants, including access to public defenders. As a result, federal authorities have agreed to 38 nonbinding detention guidelines with the American Bar Association as a form of due process, including providing telephone access to legal counsel.

"Without sufficient internal control policies and procedures in place, ICE is unable to offer assurance that detainees can access legal services, file external grievances and obtain assistance from their consulates," the July 6 GAO report said, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Concern about potential mistreatment has grown in Congress and among civil liberties groups as a national enforcement crackdown has sent the detention population soaring. "The importance of meaningful access to legal representation and materials for individuals in immigration detention cannot be overstated," said Karen J. Mathis, president of the American Bar Association, whose staff praised the GAO's work. "When the detention standards are not implemented properly . . . immigrants in detention are denied due process."

ICE spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said her agency has agreed to improve its telephone service and contractor oversight. "We are encouraged by the finding in the GAO's most recent report, which notes that detention facilities generally complied" with ICE's standards, even though the size of the detainee population had tripled, she said.

The GAO said that its investigation of 23 detention sites was not scientific and that the results cannot be projected to all 352 sites. It reported pervasive telephone system failings and isolated violations of at least one of eight standards audited -- including those on food, medical care and use of force -- at nine sites studied.

For example, four facilities did not fully comply with grievance standards. The same number reported overcrowding of as much as double their rated capacity and "triple-bunking" in detainee cells built for two. The overcrowding is the subject of pending litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The GAO report said ICE's Detention and Removal Operations unit also did not reliably track the number of complaints received or their outcome. "Standards for internal control in the federal government call for clear documentation of transactions and events" to ensure that "potential systemic problems throughout the detention system" can be detected, the investigators wrote.

The increase in detentions is a result of the stepped-up enforcement campaign that was meant to underpin the Bush administration's immigration overhaul effort, which failed. The daily detention population increased from 19,718 in 2005 to about 26,500 in February, even as officials sped up or denied additional hearings for detainees and deported virtually all the non-Mexican ones.

Illegal immigrants spent an average of 37.6 days in custody as of April, although a fourth of them, about 70,000, were held for more than 44 days, and 5 percent, about 14,000, were detained for more than four months. Federal law provides illegal immigrants 30 days to go to an appeals board and the courts before the rulings against them become final.

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