Wilkinson said her group has received letters from detainees that detail the difficulties of mounting a pro se defense from a county jail, including limited access to law libraries, a lack of basic supplies such a paper and envelopes, difficulty making copies and mail delays of up to two weeks.
Having a lawyer appears to be the single most significant factor in determining the outcome of a case. According to Human Rights Watch, asylum seekers who were represented by counsel were successful 46 percent of the time, compared to 16 percent without lawyers.
Many detainees can't afford a lawyer, and they have no right to one at the government's expense. And because so many ICE facilities are located in remote areas, pro bono services are limited. For example, McCarthy points to an ICE facility her group services in Boone County, Ky., about 300 miles from Chicago. "It's really hard to say to a pro bono attorney, 'Will you travel five hours to meet with a client?'"
At the same time, said Jan Pederson of the Pederson Immigration Law Group in Washington, "It's very hard to represent detained aliens without interviewing or speaking to them."
Morton said he is sympathetic, "As a lawyer, I'm a big believer in people having counsel. ... I will do everything in my power to make sure the facilities we have promote access to counsel." In the long term, he said, that means locating new ICE facilities "near major cities that have lawyers and pro bono counsel and charitable groups that can provide assistance."
As for now, he pledged that ICE will make sure detainees have access to working telephones to make free calls to consulates and attorneys. He also supports aid groups coming into facilities to give "Know your rights" presentations to detainees.
Still, advocates report that conditions vary tremendously by facility. For example, Romy Lerner, an attorney with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said the Broward County detention facility has no dedicated space for attorneys to meet confidentially with detainees. Many of her clients are victims of domestic violence or have been persecuted, which makes privacy essential. "I won't meet with clients with other attorneys or detainees in the room," she said.
And Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, supervising attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center's Detention Project, said a facility in Georgia doesn't allow phone calls. "From jail to jail, it's very different," she said.
Some facilities throw detainees in with the general prison population, while others keep them separate. Some treat them like criminal inmates. Others, like the Carver County Jail in Minnesota, "have been nothing but respectful to me and my client," said Maple Grove, Minn., solo practitioner Roger Taylor, who said the guards have "gone out their way" to take care of his client, an asylum seeker from Cameroon.
Morton said he is well aware of the inconsistencies in the system. "We've been too dependent on contractors," he said. "If you went to one of our major facilities, there would be no federal official on top. Contractors would run the entire operation."
He's working to end that and make the system more uniform. ICE is currently hiring 50 officials who will be stationed at its largest facilities, which house 80 percent of detainees. The largest ICE detention centers are located in Eloy, Ariz.; Lumpkin, Ga.; Pearsall, Texas; West Lancaster, Calif.; and Raymondville, Texas.
"Their sole job will be to think about detention operations that we run there. Are the people getting three meals a day? Is the place clean? Is there good medical care?" Morton said. "I don't want to do that by contract. I want to do that by direct government supervision."
Morton continued, "We have grand plans, but they're going to take time, and they have to be done in the context of an ongoing system. ... Several years from now, my hope is we'll look back and you won't recognize any of the facilities we're in."