Phone Rules Block Immigrants From Lawyers at ICE Facilities, ACLU Says

The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton.
The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton. Eflatmajor7th / Wikimedia Commons
When immigrant detainees enter the Adelanto Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center outside Los Angeles, they are trapped, virtually unable to consult with a lawyer, rights groups say. All calls, including those with counsel, are recorded. Detainees cannot leave voicemails, and calls are cut off if humans don't answer the phone. And, most important, advocates say calls are ridiculously expensive.

Boca Raton's GEO Group, one of the most politically powerful corporations in Florida, operates the L.A. facility. (GEO is ICE's largest contractor.) Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and two other groups filed a 58-page federal class-action lawsuit against three California ICE detention facilities for First Amendment violations. And some of these alleged violations are at GEO's Adelanto facility.

"The U.S. government has placed arbitrary barriers between immigrant detainees and their lawyers which must be eliminated if justice is to be served," Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said in a media release.

In response, GEO tells New Times the company was simply following orders set by the federal government. "As a services provider to ICE, GEO plays no role in establishing immigration law and we comply with the performance-based standards set by the government," a spokesperson said. "We would refer specific questions about these policies [be addressed] to ICE."

The lawsuit says one detainee — Desmond Tenghe — was placed in an immigrant-detention facility after legally applying for asylum when enemies in his unspecified "home country" allegedly attacked him and burned his house down. Tenghe entered a prison facility in Victorville, California, before ICE shipped him to Adelanto this past August 28. Tenghe has since tried to hire an attorney and says his only option is to cold-call various civil-rights organizations and nonprofits. He makes $1 per day working at Adelanto. He says he placed money on his commissary account when he was at Victorville, but ICE will not let him transfer funds between facilities. Now, he says ICE and GEO charge him a week's salary for a 10-minute phone call. He claims he's struggling to ration his money so he can call his family back home and find a suitable lawyer to get him out of immigration prison. (Tenghe says he has a sponsor in Maryland, but because of the difficulties he's had with phone service at GEO's facility, it took two months to connect with that sponsor.)

Per the suit, Tenghe effectively cannot find a lawyer because he can't leave anyone a voicemail:
Over the course of weeks, Plaintiff Tenghe tried to call at least seven different legal organizations, including Catholic Charities, El Rescate, and others. Due to Defendants’ “positive acceptance” requirement for telephone calls, the telephone calls have either disconnected after ringing once or twice or continued to ring without answer. Plaintiff Tenghe has also attempted to call Catholic Charities to obtain documents about current country conditions in his country of origin, but those telephone calls also have not connected because of Defendants’ “positive acceptance” requirement.
Tenghe says he missed a final, December 10 deadline to submit asylum documents to the government. He has a final hearing on December 19. He still does not have a lawyer.

In the suit, the civil-rights organizations describe a series of roadblocks preventing detainees from finding lawyers or conducting confidential phone calls. The groups say GEO and ICE have no reliable message systems for lawyers to contact clients housed in the facility. All calls are recorded, including attomey-client conversations the ACLU says should be "privileged" and confidential under the law.

"Upon information and belief, Defendant [Orange County Sheriff's Office] and GEO’s practices of recording and monitoring telephone calls causes detained noncitizens to fear that the information that they communicate over the telephone will be used against them in their legal proceedings or will expose them to mistreatment by their jailors," the lawsuit states. "Defendants’ policies of monitoring and recording telephone conversations also chill attorneys’ speech because attorneys, including Attorney Plaintiffs, cannot communicate substantive information or legal strategies over the telephone without concerns that they will waive the attorney-client privilege."

The suit also says there are far too few confidential meeting spaces for lawyers at Adelanto: just ten rooms for 1,940 detainees.

The suit continues:
Although Defendants GEO and ICE have a system at Adelanto whereby attorneys can make appointments to meet with detained clients twenty-four hours in advance, Defendants GEO and ICE do not reliably make detained noncitizens available at the designated times. Instead, upon information and belief, Defendants GEO and ICE generally force attorneys, including Attorney Plaintiffs, to wait between half an hour and four-and-a-half hours for each visit with a noncitizen detainee. Upon information and belief, the attorney visit list is not always printed and given to GEO employees tasked with the attorney visit process, which creates unnecessary confusion and further delay. Further, even an attorney visit scheduled in advance does not always mean that room space has been reserved because of a lack of communication among GEO staff. 
The ACLU and other rights groups warn that the practices inside Adelanto make it remarkably difficult for immigrants to find lawyers before they begin to miss filing deadlines or court dates.

"Legal representation is fundamental to ensuring due process for immigrants facing removal, but when our detained clients can't effectively communicate with us, our abilities to be effective advocates are compromised," said Meeth Soni, co-legal director at another of the groups suing ICE and GEO, the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

This is not the first time Adelanto has faced criticism: The nonprofit Detention Watch Network named Adelanto the "deadliest ICE detention facility in America" in 2017 after three detainees died there that year.

GEO remains as controversial as it is powerful: The company is regularly the subject of protests regarding prisoner treatment. At the same time, it's extremely active in state and federal politics: Joe Negron, the outgoing president of the Florida Senate, recently took a lucrative job as GEO's top lawyer. He'd previously accepted donations from GEO and overseen a Legislature that passed bills benefiting the company.

New Times last week also reported on a cache of emails showing that GEO provided ICE with legal advice before the federal government sued the state of California in 2017. Had that suit succeeded, it would have become easier for GEO to conduct business there.

Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis also recently named a GEO employee to his transition team's economic "advisory" committee.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.