SAN FRANCISCO — In a first of its kind class action settlement, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has agreed to change its policies in four Northern California detention centers, ending severe restrictions on telephone use that make placing outgoing calls nearly impossible and prevent many immigrants from obtaining legal representation and gathering documents to fight deportation. The settlement with plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the ACLU’s National Prison Project, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, and Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale will give immigrant detainees direct calling options that are free of charge on private telephones.
“When people are locked up on immigration charges, they deserve access to a working telephone. The Constitution and basic fairness demand it,” said Julia Harumi Mass, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “That phone is their lifeline, their hope for defeating the charges against them and establishing their legal rights to continue their lives in the United States.”
In 2013, the ACLU and co-counsel filed a lawsuit against ICE charging that inadequate telephone access violates the rights of ICE detainees to a full and fair hearing under federal law and the Constitution.
Every day, ICE holds an estimated 34,000 immigrants in some 250 ICE facilities around the country, with nearly one thousand in the four California facilities covered by the settlement. These detainees face civil charges as they try to obtain legal counsel or represent themselves, fighting to stay in their adopted country.
I.P., a 49-year-old man who came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 5, was detained after being pulled over for a traffic violation. He spent months locked up because he could not access legal help, largely due to the inadequate phones. The phone system had a series of complex instructions and codes for dialing that rarely worked. It also disconnected when a caller reached any kind of automated message or prompt. I.P. wrote letters to 15 attorneys and attempted to make dozens of calls before he was finally able to find a lawyer.
“Making phone calls was expensive, difficult, and frustrating. Each week, I’d see people give up and sign their deportation papers because they couldn’t reach anyone,” said I.P., who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of his ongoing case. “Many of the men in detention had families and couldn’t afford to wait the weeks it took to make phone calls, so they just surrendered.”
ICE has one year to make the changes in the settlement and has agreed to modify its inspection forms used nationwide so that phone access will be subject to greater oversight in all of its facilities.
- Provide speed dials to make free, direct, unmonitored calls to government offices and immigration attorneys who provide pro bono services
- Install 40 phone booths, distributed among the four facilities, for private calls during waking hours, as well as private phone rooms for legal calls
- Allow legal calls to family, friends, and other people to obtain testimony, documents, and other support for immigration cases
- Extend the time permitted for a call before a phone automatically cuts off, from 20 minutes to 40 minutes and from 15 minutes to 60 minutes for existing ICE speed-dials to certain nonprofit organizations, consulates, and federal offices
- Provide facilitators who will process phone requests and ensure timely access to phone rooms
- Offer phone credit or other accommodations for those who can’t afford to pay for calls
- Revise forms used nationwide to inspect for violations of telephone access standards.
“Because of this settlement, thousands of immigrants in detention will be able to use the phone to regain their freedom and go home to their families,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “But far too many of them should never have been locked up in the first place. ICE sends massive numbers of immigrants into detention and exposes them to brutal confinement at a cost of $2 billion per year to American taxpayers.”
The settlement applies to county jails with ICE contracts in Contra Costa, Sacramento, and Yuba Counties and to the privately-run Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield.
“This case was about fundamental fairness in the system,” said Charles J. Ha of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. “Orrick is committed to providing legal assistance to the underserved in our community to secure their basic due process rights. This settlement agreement serves that goal by affording detainees increased access to counsel, and to the witnesses, evidence, and information they need to vindicate their rights under our immigration laws.”
For the settlement and more information about Lyon v. ICE, visit:
For more information about the ACLU’s National Prison Project, visit:
For more information about the ACLU of Northern California, visit: