Legal advocates worry people detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement won’t have sufficient access to lawyers and advocates if they’re jailed in rural southwestern Wyoming.
Deportation proceedings are quick and people often are shipped out of the country without ever speaking to an attorney. As such, some people are deported that may have legal grounds to stay, advocates say. An ICE jail envisioned for outside Evanston, a town with no apparent immigration lawyers, would only exacerbate that problem, three lawyers told WyoFile.
An immigration lawyer in Salt Lake City, a professor at the University of Wyoming Law School, and the director of an advocacy group that works in an ICE jail in Denver all said Evanston is too isolated for lawyers or advocates for detainees’ rights to do their work properly.
A spokesperson for Management Training Corporation, the company behind the proposed jail for outside Evanston, said detainees would have full access to attorneys as needed. The company’s other facilities have worked with immigration advocacy groups, he said.
The facility that MTC envisions for outside Evanston would jail people picked up by ICE on suspicion of being in the country illegally. After arrest, most detainees are held in such facilities while they await court proceedings. Some are fast-tracked through deportation processes. Only a minority are released on bond and remain outside custody while they go through court proceedings, lawyers say.
Deportation of a detained undocumented immigrant is not guaranteed, and there are various legal reasons it can be stopped. One is if a deportation would create a cruel or unusual hardship for the loved ones they leave behind. Lawyers and detainees may also argue a need for asylum if the detainee faces persecution and danger in their home country because of race, religion, political beliefs or other aspects of their identity. There are also visas available for undocumented immigrants who were the victims of human trafficking or other crimes. But the law is complicated, lawyers say.
When a U.S. citizen is charged with a crime, they have a constitutional right to an attorney. If they can’t afford one, the state provides one. The federal government has no such obligation for undocumented immigrants held under “civil detention.”
Only 14 percent of detainees receive legal representation, according to a 2015 study of 1.2 million deportation cases published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. The drought was “particularly severe” for courts in rural areas, the report found. Without representation, many detainees are quickly deported.
“Because immigration law is so complicated … and because putting people into detention makes it that much harder to procure representation … people who might have viable claims are getting deported without the benefit of having had a full day in court,” said Suzan Pritchett, a UW law professor focused on immigration and the justice system.
“It takes experienced and dedicated immigration attorneys and advocates to be able to get inside an immigration detention center, to be able to screen for people who might have valid claims” for asylum or hardship, she said. “Those are pretty diffuse, complicated legal concepts that someone sitting in a detention center isn’t necessarily going to be able to understand.”
Legal representation has a marked impact, the legal study found. Detainees are 15 times more likely to seek relief from deportation if they have a lawyer. They’re more than five times more likely to get it.
But there are remarkable challenges to getting a lawyer. For one thing, they’re expensive. Today, many undocumented immigrants from Wyoming end up at an ICE jail in Denver after arrest. Attorneys there may require a lump sum of between $3,000 to $5,000 just to start work on the case, Pritchett said. If families are looking to stop a deportation, they’ll have to find that money fast. At the same time, one of their wage-earners may be in prison.
Being held in Evanston would only raise that hurdle, Pritchett said. There are few immigration attorneys in Wyoming generally, and none of them appear to be in Evanston.
It’s too early for Management Training Corporation to know how the facility would handle deportation cases, said Issa Arnita, a company spokesperson. The company is currently waiting for further action from ICE to advance its proposal.
In October, a different company official told WyoFile the jail could house a federal courtroom, as is the case at the ICE jail in Denver, which is operated by a different private-prison company, GEO. Or, detainees could be bussed from Evanston to an immigration court in Salt Lake City.
“While it’s too premature to talk specifics about the proposed site in Evanston,” Arnita wrote to WyoFile last week, “ICE typically provides for a courtroom at the facility or video conferencing for various legal hearings.” Detainees have open access to their attorneys, he said, who can schedule visits as often as needed.
The most likely place for attorneys to come from would be Salt Lake City, Pritchett said, an hour and a half drive away.
It could also increase the cost. Three hours of a lawyer driving back and forth could add $1,000 in legal fees, said Kate Barber, an immigration lawyer in Salt Lake City. Video hearings are a poor substitute, she said.
“You can’t give your clients notes, you can’t advise him while the court is happening,” she said. “It becomes really difficult to engage in quality representation when you don’t have your client sitting next to you.”
Even with an attorney, it’s very difficult to stop a deportation once someone is in custody, Pritchett said. For that reason, many lawyers don’t want to take detention cases, preferring to litigate those that are moving through the much slower process of regular immigration court.
“Being in detention means your case goes much, much quicker,” she said. For the attorney, it’s a “pressure-cooker situation,” she said. There are a lot of judges assigned to process detention cases and move people out of the immigration jails to get them out of taxpayer supported detention. While a regular immigration court — where people go to seek visas or residency — may be scheduling cases years from now, detention center courts operate on a timeframe of months or weeks.
“A lot of attorneys just simply don’t have the capacity to go to a detention center and be in a position to rapidly respond in a way that a detained case requires one to do,” Pritchett said.
In Denver, advocates from the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network meet with every detainee who will go through the immigration court housed in the GEO prison before their first hearing, said director Mekela Goehring. Advocates from her organization brief detainees on their rights and on the different avenues available to them to remain in the country.
RMIAN advocates also look for detainees who might have legal grounds to stay, and then they seek to connect those people with pro-bono attorneys throughout Colorado, including RMIAN’s in-house attorneys.
The organization trains and works with between 300 and 400 Colorado attorneys a year, who donate their time to represent detainees, Goehring said. Even then, she said, “it’s still a drop in the bucket.” Between 2007 and 2012, for example, only 9 percent of detainees in the GEO jail in Aurora had representation she said.
“You have individuals in situations where the most fundamental things in their lives … are at stake,” Goehring said, “and yet if they don’t have the private resources to hire an attorney then they have to represent themselves entirely on their own. It’s a powerful deprivation of someone’s due-process rights.”
There is no organization like RMIAN in Salt Lake City, said both Goehring and Barber, the immigration attorney there.
Barber sees the proposed jail in Evanston as a symptom of a larger crackdown by the Trump administration. “They are detaining anybody and everybody,” she said. “There’s going to more people and they’re going to need more room.”
Though Salt Lake City is a state capital with a metropolitan-area population of more than one million, there aren’t a lot of immigration attorneys there, she said, and certainly not enough to provide representation for detainees in a jail an hour and a half away in Wyoming. “Being able to provide services for that many people is daunting,” Barber said.
MTC currently operates three jails for ICE — one in Texas, one in New Mexico and one in California. Organizations give presentations on the legal options and rights available to detainees in all three facilities, company spokesman Arnita said. At the Texas jail, those presentations are provided by the YMCA of Houston, an hour and twenty minutes away. In New Mexico, classes are provided by the Diocesan Migrant & Refuge Services from El Paso, Texas, half an hour away. At the California jail, Arnita said, the presentations come from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Goehring sees another danger in Evanston’s distance from a robust legal community, she said.
“One of the powerful components of making sure that people have attorneys is that it gives a voice, an advocacy for people who are in detention,” she said. “[The attorneys are] also bearing witness to everything that’s going on in the detention center.”
The GEO facility in Denver is a busy place, with a steady influx of attorneys and visitors in and out of the lobby. “There are a lot more people watching what’s going on, Goehring said.
Questions in MTC’s past and present
In recent weeks, MTC has made headlines both in a detailed Casper Star-Tribune report and in news outlets in New Mexico, where the company runs the Otero County Processing Center for ICE. That facility was one of five privately contracted ICE jails that were recently reviewed by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency.
Of the five facilities, OIG inspectors found significant problems at four, including MTC’s New Mexico jail. “The problems we identified undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment,” the report read.
The report identified broken telephones in detainee housing areas. It also said that detainees at the New Mexico jail were segregated or locked down in their cells without adequate documentation or explanation for the disciplinary action. Finally, the report said the MTC facility had poor bathroom conditions including mold and peeling paint, in violation of a policy calling for “high standards” of cleanliness and sanitation.
The OIG report advised ICE to more tightly oversee the detention facilities it contracts with. ICE officials agreed to the recommendations, according to the report.
MTC, on the other hand, contests the report, Arnita wrote to WyoFile. The facilities are monitored daily by ICE, he said, and also carry out independent audits. The last one found “humane and dignified treatment of detainees,” he said.
At the New Mexico jail, broken phones are repaired in a timely fashion, policies for segregating detainees are adhered to and bathrooms are clean, he wrote in an email. “We recently painted all of the showers,” he wrote.
A recent report published by various New Mexico news outlets raised additional concerns. The MTC facility’s contract included a waiver from ICE’s usual standards for access to natural light and recreation, and a local advocate questioned whether detainees are let outdoors. Such reports, both about MTC’s facility and other privately run immigration jails in New Mexico, have prompted efforts at oversight from a committee in New Mexico’s Legislature.
Thus far in Wyoming, statewide officials have largely taken a hands-off approach to the MTC proposal. A spokesperson for Gov. Matt Mead recently told WyoFile the proposed jail doesn’t fall under state statute governing private prisons, so construction approval and oversight would rest with local officials. Town and county officials in Uinta County support MTC’s proposal.