Immigration Transfers Add To System's Problems

The immigration agency has a chronic shortage of detention beds, and must juggle detainees among available spaces. This means that within weeks of an arrest, an immigrant may find himself transferred halfway across the country, far from family and lawyer.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This week, we're hearing about the nation's overburdened immigration enforcement system. In recent years, as part of an immigration crackdown, the government has vastly expanded its patchwork of local, federal and private immigration jails. But there's still not enough space to meet demand, so immigrants are often transferred among detention centers.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, that can be crushing to people who are trying to challenge their deportation.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: When he was arrested last May, Juan was just about the only member of his family without legal status. He'd followed his father and a brother leaving Mexico to help farm mushrooms in Kenneth Square, Pennsylvania. His wife has a green card, and then there's his toddler daughter, and now an infant son, both U.S. citizens.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Juan, long ago, filed to legalize his status. Because his case is still in process, he doesn't want to use his real name. Last spring, he says his wife Maria was eight months pregnant with their son, so when their daughter fell sick, Juan drove to the pharmacy for medicine.

JUAN: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: The police stopped me because my car registration was expired, he says. Then they asked for my license. That was suspended because of three earlier DUIs. Juan was sentenced to 60 days in the county jail, then transferred to federal immigration detention in York, Pennsylvania, to be processed for deportation.

The family hired a lawyer; there was a hearing. And then, 10 days after arriving at York, Juan was told to pack his bags again.

JUAN: (Through translator) That moment, when they told me I was going to Texas, I thought my whole case had fallen apart and I was going to be deported.

MARIA: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Maria says when Juan failed to call that day she had no idea what had happened.

It's federal policy not to announce transfers beforehand out of security concerns. Immigration officials say they send notice within 24 hours. But lawyers talk of sometimes spending days trying to track down where a client's been moved.

When Juan's lawyer, Susan Smollens, found out he was in Texas, half way across the country, she, too, was worried.

Ms. SUSAN SMOLLENS (Immigration Attorney): We asked them to keep him here because all the documents are here, his family is here, the records are here, the case is here. And yet, because they're filling beds down in Texas, they moved him down as soon as they can.

Mr. JOHN TORRES (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): One of the things we try to do is maximize the use of our detention facilities or space available across the country, while also minimizing the number of transfers that we have to actually effect.

LUDDEN: John Torres of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says a transfer can disrupt ICE prosecutions, as well. Torres says his agency has tried to buy or build bed space where it needs it most, but it's not always possible.

Mr. TORRES: In the northeast, for example, it's very difficult to build a detention facility, in Manhattan or in Boston. One, because there's limited space; two, the cost can be exorbitant, especially to the taxpayer; and then three, in many instances there are local communities there, they don't want a prison built in their backyard.

LUDDEN: So, the Bush administration looked far from almost any backyards. It built a string of immigrant detention centers in remote areas of south Texas, miles from any city. Attorney Smollens says immigration attorneys there are few and far between.

And free legal help? Forget it. Rights groups say many attorneys simply drop a case if a client's transferred. But Smollens has had clients sent to Texas before and she's managed to find a few attorneys there willing to help, provided her clients are willing to pay.

Ms. SMOLLENS: They charge $500, at least, for each appearance. And it does take five minutes. We've the prepared the papers up here so they have to pay the home attorney also.

LUDDEN: This was all the more difficult to arrange because, once Juan arrived in Texas, communications with Smollens virtually stopped. Lawyers cannot call in to detention centers and it's costly for detainees to call out.

MARIA: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Maria says Juan would call collect every three or four days. It was $25 to talk 15 minutes.

Lawyer Smollens relayed information about the case through family members. And in what immigration lawyers say is a common problem when clients are sent far away, she had to plea for Juan to be patient.

JUAN: (Through translator) I wanted to be with my family more than anything. I thought if I just agreed to be deported, we could reunite in Mexico.

LUDDEN: But Smollens told him that would have ruined his chances of gaining legal status anytime soon.

Allison Parker of Human Rights Watch says there's another way transfers make it difficult to fight deportation. One of the few arguments for staying in the U.S. is close family ties, but that can be hard to show when relatives are thousands of miles away.

Ms. ALLISON PARKER (Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch): Often immigration judges don't let the detainees' children or spouses appear at the hearing over video or by telephone, which means that the evidence is never really considered by the judge.

LUDDEN: John Torres, of the federal immigration agency ICE, says his agency has done much to make its detention system more efficient and limit the time people must be held. But if the alternative to being sent far away is to be released, he says that would undermine the integrity of the whole system.

If anything, Julie Myers-Wood, the former head of ICE, thinks there may be more transfers. She says the agency is reviewing its detention standards, and that may lead to big choices on whether to close some centers not up to par.

Ms. JULIE MYERS-WOOD: (Former Chief, Immigration and Custom Enforcement): At the end of the day, is it most important that there's outside recreation, as required by the standards, a certain times a week? Or is it more important that the alien be in a facility that's otherwise up to par but is closer to the alien's attorney?

LUDDEN: After two and a half months of long-distance legal work, Juan was let out on bond and returned to his family in Pennsylvania. He had missed the birth of his son, and his fight against deportation is still playing out. But he's thankful his family will be in the courtroom with him. His case has been moved to nearby Philadelphia.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.