The ACLU Fights Back by Getting Detainees Access to the Outside World

In the past few weeks, shocking images of children jailed by immigration enforcement officials have sparked protests, fundraisers and op-eds across the nation. But these cruel actions by anti-immigration forces were not new. The public was finally stirred by the painful images and sounds of children torn from their parents and locked up in cages.

This administration has attempted to shield the cruel realities of immigration prisons from public view. But the ACLU is ramping up its fight for transparency, especially where detainees are kept nearly incommunicado.

Earlier this week the ACLU Foundations of Southern California and Northern California sent a letter to ICE demanding that the nearly 400 individuals detained at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield be given access to legal resources, functioning computers, and communication technologies in order to handle the claims against them.

Mesa Verde, operated by the commercial GEO Group, gets $17 million of public money every year for that facility, only to violate the constitutional right of the individuals it detains to access resources needed for a fair hearing. Immigrants at Mesa Verde have been, effectively, forced to fight their immigration cases from inside of a black hole. For weeks at a time, the facility’s law library has been closed, the computers on which individuals prepare their legal arguments have not been functional, and there has been no access to scanners and photocopiers for individuals to share documents with family and advocates on the outside.

These denials of access to legal resources and modes of communication feeds the administration’s deportation machine. The most important factor in determining whether a detained individual will even try to contest the government’s attempt to deport them is whether they have a lawyer (a detained immigrant is 11 times more likely to seek relief from deportation if they have a lawyer than if they do not). Many of the individuals at Mesa Verde are asylum-seekers or people who have lived in the United States for years — the stakes of their legal proceedings could not be higher.

Yet, ICE and GEO do not appear to care. By denying the people it detains access to legal resources and communication technologies to adequately prepare their legal cases, they are doing their best to deport these individuals as quickly as possible, under as little scrutiny as possible.

Our demand letter is one step toward holding ICE accountable and protecting the rights of detained immigrants. And it is one part of our broader strategy to contest ICE’s secretive, illegal and brutal detention and deportation machine. Last week, the ACLU SoCal filed a successful legal challenge to the isolation of hundreds of detainees — many of whom had been forcibly separated from their children — at a federal prison in Victorville, CA where they were denied the opportunity to speak to or meet with anyone from the outside. The federal judge in that case issued an emergency order requiring ICE to guarantee access to lawyers for the detainees and the right to make telephone calls. Days later, the ACLU of Oregon won a similar emergency ruling in its challenge to the Trump administration’s holding of 123 immigrants incommunicado at a federal prison in Sheridan, OR.

The secrecy must stop. Immigrants have the right to communicate with attorneys and their loved ones, and the public has the right to know about this administration’s cruel imprisonment of immigrants.