U.S. officials agree to improve phone access for immigration detainees

A detainee has his hands uncuffed after arriving to the Immigration Customs Enforcement processing office in downtown Sacramento on Wednesday, September 15, 2010.
A detainee has his hands uncuffed after arriving to the Immigration Customs Enforcement processing office in downtown Sacramento on Wednesday, September 15, 2010. hamezcua@sacbeee.com

A federal lawsuit has resulted in better telephone access to legal help for immigrants detained in four California lockups, including one run by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

In a class-action settlement announced Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to loosen restrictions on telephone use that, according to lawyers for the detainees, made placing outgoing calls “nearly impossible and prevent(ed) many immigrants from obtaining legal representation and gathering documents to fight deportation.”

Detainees’ sworn declarations were used to bolster the lawsuit. Among them was one from a 49-year-old man who came from Mexico at age 5 and was detained after being pulled over for a traffic violation. Publicly identified in court papers only as I.P., his story illustrates the obstacles to phone communication and their impact on immigrants’ lives.

He spent months locked up because he couldn’t get legal help, largely due to the lack of access to phones, I.P. swore in his declaration. The phone system had a series of complex instructions and codes for dialing that rarely worked, he said. It also disconnected when it reached any kind of automated message or prompt, removing the opportunity to leave a message.

I.P. said he wrote letters to 15 attorneys and attempted to make dozens of calls before he was able to find a lawyer.

“Making phone calls was expensive, difficult and frustrating,” he said. “Each week, I’d see people give up and sign their deportation papers because they couldn’t reach anyone. Many of the men in detention had families and couldn’t afford to wait the weeks it took to make phone calls, so they just surrendered.”

This inadequate access violated “the rights of ICE detainees to a full and fair hearing under federal law and the U.S. Constitution,” according to their lawyers.

Among the settlement’s provisions are speed dials to make free, direct, unmonitored calls to government offices and immigration attorneys who provide services without compensation; 40 phone booths distributed among the four facilities for private calls during waking hours, as well as some private rooms for legal calls; and allowing calls to family, friends and others to obtain testimony, documents and other support for the detainees’ cases.

“Because of this settlement, thousands of immigrants in detention will be able to use the phone to regain their freedom and go home to their families,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

The settlement applies to facilities with ICE contracts in Sacramento, Yuba and Contra Costa counties, and to privately run Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield. In Sacramento County, detainees are housed at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.

No one could be reached for comment Monday at ICE’s San Francisco field office.

On any given day, ICE holds an estimated 34,000 immigrants in nearly 250 facilities around the country, with nearly 1,000 in the four covered by the settlement. Those 1,000 detainees face civil charges in San Francisco’s immigration court as they try to obtain legal counsel or represent themselves in uphill struggles to stay in the United States.

Their efforts were “plagued by exorbitant telephone rates and fees, technical and language barriers that prevent(ed) plaintiffs from connecting with their intended call recipients, physical limitations on movement that restrict(ed) when plaintiffs (could) use telephones, inadequate privacy, inability to receive incoming calls, ineffective messaging systems and a lack of notice and instruction on the options available,” their lawsuit claimed.

It was filed on behalf of detainees in 2013 in San Francisco federal court by ACLU attorneys backed up by lawyers from two private firms.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189