Are a Prison’s Financial Interests Preventing Immigrant Detainees From Getting Legal Advice?
Buried in this sad-but-otherwise-unsurprising story in Monday’s New York Times about the sorry state of the immigrant detention system is this rather curious fact: when the City Bar Justice Center in New York asked the warden of the Varick Street detention center to forward lawyers’ letters of legal advice to the immigrants who’d been transferred from there to other facilities, “the warden balked, saying he had to consider the financial interests of his private shareholders: 1,200 members of a central Alaskan tribe whose dividends are linked to Varick’s profits under a $79 million, three-year federal contract.”
Setting aside the question of why the Immigration and Customs Enforcement relies on private prisons to begin with, or how it is that Alaskan tribes came to invest in them, the story doesn’t really explain how forwarding the lawyers’ letters would hurt the financial interests of the private prison’s shareholders. The only way I can imagine is if the letters were advising detainees on how to challenge their detention, which would jeopardize the company’s ability to keep its inmates, and to keep charging the federal government for them. It would have been helpful if the reporter, Nina Bernstein, had asked the followup question.
The main point of her story, though, is that none of the inmates at the Varick Street prison have a right to legal representation. The prison population consists of illegal immigrants, applicants for political asylum and legal immigrants who are deportable because of past criminal convictions. According to a new article in the Fordham Law Review, 58 percent of immigrants in deportation proceedings don’t have legal representation. Meanwhile, a new report from the City Bar Justice Center, which has just launched a new program to try to get lawyers for them, finds that almost 40 percent of detainees interviewed had potentially meritorious claims to remain in the United States.