May 20, 2020

Udall, Heinrich Push to Ensure Detainees at ICE Detention Centers Are Guaranteed Access to Free Telephone Calls During COVID-19 Pandemic

In order to effectively prepare for their immigration court cases while social and legal visits are suspended at ICE facilities, detainees must be able to communicate with people outside detention

Letter also calls on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to guarantee that communications with attorneys are confidential and unsupervised by detention center staff

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) joined 27 senators in a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), urging the Trump administration to ensure that all ICE detention centers implement the agency’s recent commitment to provide 520 free phone call minutes per month for each person in detention during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The letter also calls on DHS to guarantee that any telephonic or remote communication with attorneys remains confidential and unsupervised by detention center staff. 

Udall, Heinrich and a group of 27 Democratic senators called for the DHS IG to conduct a full assessment of ICE detention facilities nationwide to evaluate whether the facilities’ operations, management, standards, and conditions have adapted to address the threat of COVID-19 to both the staff and detainees. The senators received confirmation from the DHS IG yesterday that the office is pursuing a nationwide review. In addition, the full New Mexico Delegation sought immediate accountability for public health and hygiene standards in ICE detention facilities. Despite these calls, however, according to ICE, the number of detainees testing positive in immigration custody in New Mexico continues to climb. The latest number of positive cases in Otero County Processing Center is a staggering 58. ICE’s data is not up to date regarding ICE employee positive diagnoses for New Mexico’s immigration detention centers.

The lawmakers wrote, “Crowded, unsanitary conditions in ICE detention put nearly 30,000 detainees, and detention center staff, at especially high risk of COVID-19 infection. According to ICE, there have been 1,073 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those in ICE custody at 49 locations across the country. Forty-four ICE employees at detention centers have also tested positive for the virus. In order to help prevent further spread of the virus, ICE has suspended social and legal visits.” 

“The vast majority of those in ICE detention facilities—more than four out of every five—do not have legal representation in their removal cases, which continue to proceed during the pandemic. In order to effectively prepare for their immigration court cases, these detainees must communicate with people outside detention who have access to relevant evidence. For those who do have representation in their removal cases, access to meaningful and confidential phone communication with counsel is essential,” the lawmakers continued.

In addition to Udall and Heinrich, the letter was signed by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

The letter is endorsed by National Immigrant Justice Center, American Immigration Lawyers Association, Human Rights First, National Immigration Law Center, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, United We Dream, and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The full text of the letter can be found HERE and below:

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf and Acting Director Albence:

We write to urge the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take immediate action to ensure that all Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, including the facilities that contract with ICE, quickly implement the agency’s recent commitment to provide 520 free phone call minutes per month for detainees during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. DHS should also guarantee that any telephonic or remote communication with attorneys remains confidential and unsupervised by detention center staff.

Crowded, unsanitary conditions in ICE detention put nearly 30,000 detainees, and detention center staff, at especially high risk of COVID-19 infection. According to ICE, there have been 1,073 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those in ICE custody at 49 locations across the country. Forty-four ICE employees at detention centers have also tested positive for the virus. In order to help prevent further spread of the virus, ICE has suspended social and legal visits.

The vast majority of those in ICE detention facilities—more than four out of every five—do not have legal representation in their removal cases, which continue to proceed during the pandemic. In order to effectively prepare for their immigration court cases, these detainees must communicate with people outside detention who have access to relevant evidence. For those who do have representation in their removal cases, access to meaningful and confidential phone communication with counsel is essential.

We appreciate that ICE has committed to providing 520 free minutes per month for each person in detention, which ICE officials communicated to Congressional staff on May 4, 2020. However, legal service providers have reported uneven implementation of the policy. According to information received by Congress, many facilities have not provided any free minutes, some have provided fewer than 520 minutes, and others have provided detainees with 13 free, ten-minute calls per week—but prohibit detainees from carrying over unused minutes. Legal service providers also report incidents in which their clients do not have access to free calls to counsel on non-recorded lines. 

Accordingly, we respectfully request that DHS and ICE take immediate action to ensure that all ICE facilities, including facilities that contract with ICE, quickly implement the free phone minutes policy and ensure access to unsupervised communication with attorneys. We also respectfully request responses to the following questions by May 29, 2020: 

1. Please list each detention facility that currently provides all detainees with access to 520 free phone call minutes each month.  As used throughout, the term “detention facility” includes ICE detention centers and facilities otherwise used by ICE to detain individuals, including contract facilities and Inter-Governmental Service Agreement (IGSA) facilities.

2. When will all detention facilities provide detainees with access to free phone minutes? To the greatest extent practicable, please provide a specific date on which access will be guaranteed for each detention facility.

3. Please provide any memoranda or guidance detailing the free phone minutes policy.  Please clarify whether this policy will be implemented uniformly across all detention facilities, or whether the agency is allowing modification of the policy (including modification of phone minute allowances) at certain facilities.

4. How will ICE ensure that all detention facilities have implemented this policy?  Please provide any relevant guidance and communication provided to detention facility staff and operators, including guidance detailing how ICE intends to ensure compliance.

5. Please explain how detainees access their free minutes. If detainees’ methods of accessing free minutes varies across types of detention facilities, please explain how these methods differ.

6. What steps is ICE taking to ensure that all detainees are informed of the availability of free phone minutes, including by providing information in a language they understand? Please provide copies of any notice given to detainees or detention facility staff with regards to accessing free phone call minutes.

7. Will ICE ensure that unused minutes are never forfeited, track how many free minutes are used by each person in detention, and evaluate whether additional minutes are needed?

8. Please list each detention facility that currently provides all detainees with access to un-recorded phone lines for legal calls.

9. When will all detention facilities guarantee access to un-recorded phone lines for legal calls and adopt other measures to ensure that detainees can communicate confidentially with counsel?

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,