A free phone call can mean the difference between a fair day in court and being deported to harm—or worse—for individuals held in immigration detention centers. Immigrants may not be able to meet with their attorneys in person, leaving phone calls as the only way to communicate about their cases.

Being able to communicate with an attorney is crucial for immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the El Paso region of Texas, where the approval rate for asylum applications is consistently under five percent. The situation has become even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 4, a lawsuit was filed to force ICE to eliminate the barriers to phone access in two immigration detention centers in the El Paso area. The lawsuit, Carranza v. ICE, was filed on behalf of individuals detained in the El Paso area at the Otero County Detention Facility and the El Paso Service Processing Center—each with the combined capacity to detain thousands of people.

ICE has a pattern of blocking phone access for months

Attorneys and immigrant advocacy organizations have pursued aggressive advocacy strategies with ICE’s El Paso Field Office to resolve this problem in area detention centers since October 2019.

Attorneys trying to speak with their detained clients have reported the following problems:

  • The inability of people in detention to call their attorneys at a designated time, which was particularly problematic when telephonic interpreters were lined up to talk at those times.
  • The inability of people to call their attorneys or family members unless they had money on their commissary accounts.
  • The failure of ICE to provide a space at the detention center that allowed for confidential, private conversations, thereby hampering their ability to share sensitive case details over the phone.
  • Phone calls with detained clients would drop suddenly and without notice.
  • Attorneys reporting that they would attempt to set up calls with ICE, but that sometimes they would wait nearly two weeks for a response. Other times, they never got a response.

Pro bono attorneys reported that one of ICE’s solutions was to direct their officers to allow detained immigrants to make legal calls on the officers’ cell phones—but those conversations were likely not confidential.

The issue is not limited to the El Paso region

These issues are not isolated to the two immigration detention centers in the El Paso area. A similar lawsuit was filed in 2013 on behalf of immigrants detained in several detention centers in California. The resulting 2016 Lyon v. ICE Settlement Agreement requires ICE to meet certain phone access standards in those immigration detention centers, including access to free, unmonitored legal calls in private spaces.

Congress has also repeatedly directed ICE to implement the terms of this settlement at all immigration detention centers across the country and to report on its progress. ICE has consistently failed to meet these benchmarks. As a result, many of the people in immigration detention are unable to adequately prepare with their attorneys for upcoming asylum interviews and court hearings.

ICE’s actions violate the government’s own internal guidelines

The barriers to phone access in El Paso area immigration detention centers are interfering with immigrants’ fundamental right to counsel and access to the courts—protected by the U.S. Constitution and the federal court in Lyon v. ICE. The government’s failure to provide free, confidential phone calls to people held in immigration detention also violates the government’s own internal guidelines.

A phone call to the outside world may be the only hope that people in immigration detention centers have to prevent their deportation to imminent harm. Until the government takes meaningful steps to eliminate the barriers to phone access in immigration detention centers, the federal courts will have to force the government to do the right thing.