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Report: Immigrant Detainees Often Lack Access to Legal Counsel

Detainees moving through immigration courts lack certain rights that most Americans take for granted, and among them is the right to legal counsel. Although a network of legal aid organizations has formed to try to provide detainees with lawyers, the immigration detention system does not always facilitate access to pro bono attorneys for detainees — in many cases because detention centers are located too far away from legal aid organizations, according to a report to be released today by the National Immigrant Justice Center.

More than 80 percent of detainees in the survey were housed in isolated facilities far from legal aid organizations, creating heavy caseloads of 100 detainees per attorney, The Los Angeles Times reported. Another 10 percent had no access to legal representation:

“While access to legal counsel is a foundation of the U.S. justice system, our survey found that the government continues to detain thousands of men and women in remote facilities where access to counsel is limited or nonexistent,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “In some facilities, it is impossible for detained immigrants to find attorneys.”

Federal officials said they were making progress in helping provide legal help for detained immigrants.

“ICE is committed to allowing detainees access to telephones, legal counsel and law library resources,” agency spokesman Brian Hale said in a statement. “ICE is working with our stakeholders, including the U.S. Department of Justice … and nongovernmental organizations, to expand and support pro bono representation for those in our custody.”

ICE has attempted to reform its detention system, but human rights groups have argued more reform is necessary. One major issue is that immigrants must know — or be told — some of their rights so they can seek out legal representation. The survey found that more than half of facilities did not offer detainees information about their rights.

The Justice Department provides a list of free legal service providers in many areas, and large detention centers often have libraries with information on the legal system. But these services vary from center to center. Ultimately, access to a lawyer can have a huge impact on the outcome of a detainee’s case:

A 2005 Migration Policy Institute study found that 41% of detainees applying to become lawful permanent residents who had legal counsel won their cases, compared with 21% of those without representation. In asylum cases, 18% of detainees with lawyers were granted asylum, compared with 3% for those without.

Migration Policy Institute argued that granting better access to lawyers would save money by making the process more efficient — saving some of the $122 per day costs of detention.

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