Detention Program Allegedly Barred Lawyers From Visiting Their Immigrant Clients

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Advocates from an immigration detention visitation group say they have been barred from visiting potential clients in California and Alabama just a few weeks after they filed a complaint alleging abusive conditions at one detention facility.

Lawyers representing Christina Fialho, the co-founder of the immigrant visitation program Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), alleged in a letter to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency that Fialho was denied access to immigrants at a private prison-operated detention center in Adelanto, California after she held peaceful vigils at the facility between 2013 and 2015.

Officials also terminated CIVIC’s affiliated program called the Etowah Visitation Project, which enables volunteers to meet with detainees in Alabama’s Etowah County Detention Center (ECDC) and to provide contact with the outside world, just days after CIVIC filed a complaint alleging abusive conditions at ECDC.

“This is the sixth CIVIC affiliated program to be terminated in the last two years after volunteers publicly criticized the immigration detention system,” Fialho, who is an attorney herself, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “ICE is trying to make us choose between our First Amendment right and visiting our friends and clients in detention, and this is not a choice that our government can legally ask us to make. We hope to resolve this amicably, but we are prepared to initiate a lawsuit if necessary in order to compel ICE and its contractors to abide by the First Amendment.”

Started in October 2013, the Etowah Visitation Project has been run with formal approval through the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department and the ICE New Orleans Field Office. Because of Etowah’s desolate location away from major cities, volunteers from local community groups write letters or visit detainees who requested the opportunity to meet on a monthly basis through a video visitation system. “They sit behind these computer terminals that connect them via the video system with the men, even though it’s just in the adjacent building,” CIVIC co-founder Christina Mansfield explained to ThinkProgress.

“Most of the detainees there are transferred from other places, like New York or California,” Eunice Cho, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told ThinkProgress. Her organization sent the letter on behalf of the CIVIC and the Etowah Visitation Project as counsel. “They don’t actually see friends or family or even counsel. The visitation program is very important because these are the only people who see these detainees on a regular basis.”

One of the reasons that visitation was reportedly revoked was because the Etowah sheriff became “extremely upset” that Sylvester Owino, a former detainee who was held in immigration detention for nine years, showed up at a “Chant Down the Walls” concert in June.

The concert, organized by a few immigrant advocacy groups, included a band from California who played songs outside the Etowah facility so that the detainees inside could hear them. “This is to give them a little hope that they’re not forgotten about,” Mansfield said.

Visitation was also likely revoked because CIVIC filed a formal complaint based on first-hand accounts by former and current ECDC detainees last month, alleging numerous complaints of physical abuse and “mental torture” in the facility.

But if advocates and lawyers can’t get into the detention center, they may not be able to keep documenting the potential abuses going on inside.

“When ICE retaliates against detention groups, it really creates the appearance that ICE and the sheriff’s office is trying to hide what happens in these detention centers,” Cho said.

“This visitation program was the window into being able to hear about grievances that happened there. We’re really concerned about the men who are detained there,” Mansfield agreed. “They have no way of contacting their families, sometimes because the cost of a phone call is so high. These visitors act as surrogate family, as a kind of way that these people in detention can feel they’re supported and that people care about what’s happening to them. For a lot of them, they have no idea how long their case will be adjudicated. It’s a form of psychological torture.”

ICE detention facilities around the country are under intense scrutiny recently as advocates and members of Congress continue to pressure the Obama administration to sharply curtail the practice of long-term detention.

Etowah was almost shut down in 2010 when ICE wanted to move immigrants away from the remote location and closer to the courts. Alabama lawmakers intervened, since revenues from the ICE facility for Etowah County netted about $5.2 million annually. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin stated at the time that shutting down the facility would also mean “49 individuals losing their jobs only days before Christmas with no notice whatsoever,” NBC News reported.

Shutting attorneys out of detention centers has been on the rise across the country. Immigration officials recently shut out two attorneys unaffiliated to CIVIC from detention centers. Attorneys Kim Hunter and Andrew Free were banned from family detention centers in Texas after ICE said that the two violated visitation standards, the Associated Press reported.

“Any attack against us as advocates is only an extension of a more serious attack on people in immigration detention,” Fialho said. “Volunteer visitors and attorneys play essential roles to support people in immigration detention, to support their families and when we see abuse we have to speak up.”

This post has been updated to reflect that Owino was not kept in detention in violation of a Supreme court decision known as Zadvydas v. Davis, which only applies to people in post-removal detention. Rather, Owino was and still is fighting his case in the court.