Trump Administration is now blocking Immigrants’ Legal Access to Pro Bono Attorneys


An immigration legal group known as Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) has filed a formal complaint against the Trump administration. This complaint filed with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), claims the agency is working with a private prison corporation to restrict immigrants’ access to its legal services at a Texas detention facility. ICE is being accused of creating barriers for people being held at the Karnes, Texas, immigration detention facility to meet with legal terms.

There are several complaints and include such things as ICE failing to make space available for private meetings with clients, setting new requirements for lawyers to meet with clients, so that fewer people can meet with attorneys, and removing a “walk-in” signup list. “ICE drastically changed its policies recently in a way that significantly limits the ability of pro bono attorneys to work with detained persons at Karnes,” the legal group said in its complaint.

The complaint was addressed to Deborah Achim, deputy field officer, and Melissa DeLeon, assistant field officer in San Antonio. Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman, emailed a statement in response to NBC News’ request for comment. The statement said that “no standard provisions have been changed at Karnes.”

Since September of 2014, RAICES, along with the law firm Akin Gump, the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, and the St. Mary’s University School of Law Immigration Clinic, has provided pro bono legal services to individuals detained at Karnes. In its eight-page complaint, RAICES said that ICE has stopped following its own policies, based on its own detention standards, that were originally implemented in 2014. “Simply put, the policies worked,” the complaint says.

Previous policies for lawyers to access the facility and represent people were working, but the letter states ICE drastically changed the policies on April 15. For example, there have been delays seeing clients, because GEO, a group which contracts with ICE to run Karnes hasn’t been telling the clients about their appointments. They also won’t tell more than one immigrant at a time that a lawyer is there to meet with them and won’t allow more than once client at a time into lawyer-visitation rooms. In the past, RAICES could add a new client to its visitation list and see them the same day, but GEO no longer allows that. “Due to combined effects of this policy and others, individuals detained at Karnes must wait an average of 10 days for an initial pro bono visit,” the letter said.

Also, GEO has made RAICES lawyers and their clients leave visitation rooms if a private attorney shows up to meet with a client. A GEO officer said private lawyers always have preference over RAICES. “It is of great concern that GEO contractors have stated intent to provide unequal access to counsel for those who cannot afford private counsel,” the letter stated.

A GEO spokesman wrote in an email that it’s unfortunate that RAICES included GEO in the complaint. Pablo Paez, GEO’s executive vice president of corporate relations told The Hill in a statement that the company “plays no role in setting the policies that govern attorney visitation and legal access to the Karnes Residential Center and other ICE Processing Centers. As a service provider and contractor to the federal government, our company is required to abide by policies and procedures set by the government.”

Many argue that this latest policy change is yet another example of President Trump making the immigration system work against immigrants. For example, the administration has reduced refugee admissions, slowed down the lawful immigration processes, pushed more people into deportation proceedings, turned asylum seekers away, and much more. While the Trump Administration is not changing immigration laws, the administration is making policy changes that make it harder for immigrants to file and receive immigration benefits.

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