For any non-citizen facing the prospect of deportation from the United States, legal representation is crucial. In fact, research indicates that whether an immigrant is represented by counsel has a huge impact not only on the outcome of their case, but on how much time they are forced to spend in custody. This, in turn, has a big impact on how much time and money it costs for the case to be resolved.  Ensuring that a case is justly decided in a timely manner is particularly important for asylum seekers, for whom deportation back to the countries from which they fled can amount to a death sentence. Yet, despite the high stakes involved, the U.S.immigration detention system routinely prevents detainees from accessing the legaladvice upon which their cases, and their lives, depend. For this reason, AILA has joined with others in a class action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a private prison company (Geo Group) for creating unlawful barriers to attorney-client communications.

Obstacles to attorney-client communications take many forms at immigration detention facilities around the country. Some are located in remote areas, far away from any family or the legal service providers who might be able to help detainees with their cases. A great many detention centers lack meeting space where attorneys can privately confer with their clients—or even private telephones that detainees can use to communicate confidentially with lawyers.Even if phones are readily available, exorbitant fees often prevent detainees from accessing them. Taken together, these impediments to free communication between detainees and lawyers amount to a serious erosion of due process.

For instance, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, an asylum seeker who was tortured by police in his home country, and detained at the Adelanto detention center, earns $1 per day working in the facility. With no other access to funds, he must somehow stretch this meager amount to cover the cost of the paid phone calls he needs to make to talk to his lawyers and ask his family members at home for documents that would support his case . To be able to speak to his family for ten minutes, it costs one week of his earnings. He has repeatedly submitted requests for free calls, but to no avail. In short, structural conditions at the detention facility are undermining his right to apply for asylum. And if he cannot meaningfully exercise that right, the repercussions if he is deported could be fatal.

As the suit makes clear, confidential access to both telephones and in-person meeting space is critical if lawyers are to provide their clients with effective representation. The issues involved in removal proceedings are complex and require attorneys to conduct in-depth interviews with their clients that may touch upon a wide array of sensitive issues involving past traumas and abuses. This process may be complicated by the fact that attorney and client do not speak the same language, thereby adding an additional layer of complexity of relying upon an interpreter. These sorts of hours-long, translated discussions cannot be effectively held in a common area of the detention facility or over a phone that is within earshot of guards and other detainees.

The suit was filed on December 14 by the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Southern California, the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at  Stanford Law School, and the Sidley Austin law firm on behalf of three named plaintiffs, AILA, and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. The defendants are ICE, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and the private prison operator Geo Group, Inc. The suit asks that detainees be granted the opportunity to make private, unmonitored phone calls to their lawyers; that reasonable accommodations be provided for detainees who cannot afford to make calls; and that sufficient space in detention facilities be made available for detainees to have confidential meetings with their legal representatives.

These reforms would go a long way toward restoring some of the due process rights that have been systematically stripped from immigration detainees in this country.