X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
It sounds easy. Let outside lawyers hold meetings for new detainees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) so prisoners can learn their legal rights under U.S. law. The change was approved by the agency three years ago. But, as an INS official in Washington explains, such an innovation is “not a light switch we can turn on tomorrow.” Nowhere has it taken as long to flip the switch as at the INS detention center on Varick Street near the southern end of Manhattan. There, advocates for immigrants have sought for 18 months to be allowed to make regular 60-minute presentations to tell new arrivals about their legal rights as they face deportation. They’re still trying. Along the way, the advocates have kept records of ignored phone calls, unanswered letters and the center’s return of certified mail marked “refused.” Interviews with INS officials in Washington and New York City produce widely differing explanations. The INS adopted “standards” — the name is important because it means they aren’t enforceable in court — for its treatment of detained immigrants under pressure from the American Bar Association (ABA) and other groups. The 1998 rules applied to all INS-run facilities. Last fall they were extended to other jails and prisons where the INS rents space. But they’ve never quite been extended to Varick Street, advocates say. “There’s a feeling that they’re not accountable to anyone,” Maria Navarro, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, says of the New York-based officials of the immigration agency. She provides documentation to back up her description of efforts since September 1999 to get the local officials to permit live “rights presentations” to detainees. Interviews with INS officials suggest that she’s as far as ever from setting up shop once or twice a month in the nondescript ex-office building to tell 50 or so detainees, in English and Spanish, about their legal standing and the documents they’ll need to avoid deportation. In fact, officials in New York say their denial doesn’t violate the standards. ‘NO REASON’ FOR NO MEETINGS Higher-ups in Washington, however, acknowledge that it does and tend to discount the local excuses. “There’s no reason why credible people can’t come in and present the “know your rights” to the detainees,” says Anthony Tangeman, the deputy executive associate commissioner in the agency’s Office of Detention and Removal. The standards come in response to a huge rise in the number of people in INS custody. The figure has nearly doubled in the last four years, largely because of changes in 1996 to U.S. immigration laws. According to the INS, the size of the daily detention population has grown to an average of 20,000 detainees, up from 8,200 in 1997. Four of the 36 standards govern minimum legal access. They promise telephones, access to lawyers and a properly stocked law library. They restrict strip searches after detainees meet with lawyers. A memo last year by Michael A. Pearson, executive associate commissioner for the INS, says that the standards “allow access for both live rights presentations and videotaped information in detention facilities,” and that local offices “must meet the minimum requirements for implementation.” Because the deportation proceedings are civil matters, those detained do not have a right to have a lawyer, and 90 percent typically don’t. Advocates say the “rights presentations” are important –especially at Varick Street, Navarro says, “because most of the people are transferred to distant locations where there are no pro bono services and few resources for the detainees.” The lawyers got support from an INS judge who works at Varick Street, Alan Vomacka. He wrote to the local officials backing the advocates, saying that when he worked at a facility with rights presentations, hearings ran more smoothly and “less detention time was wasted: Aliens with some chance for success were likely to move their cases along more efficiently to get to the final hearings and aliens with little chance for success were more likely to accept an order of deportation in the early stages of the process.” Varick holds about 250 people facing deportation as illegal immigrants, criminals or both. Many spend only about three days there, so even weekly “rights presentations” would help only a minority. Still, the Legal Aid Society’s immigration clinic and Washington Square Legal Services, a New York University law school clinic, have been pressing for them. Navarro and Nancy Morawetz, the Washington Square Legal Services executive director, say they initially tried to contact Varick Street’s officer-in-charge, Charlene Monroe. Phone calls and letters were not answered, they say, so they wrote and phoned her boss, the assistant district director for detention and deportation, Yvonne Smalls. Smalls set up a meeting last April, but has not responded to their calls or letters since then, they say. In an interview in November, Monroe blamed the delay in approval on INS headquarters’ not having sent her a copy of a videotape for review — even though the video, made elsewhere, had already been approved by the agency and the New York advocates didn’t plan to use it anyway. She did not return recent phone calls. Smalls’ office directed calls to a local spokesman, Mark Thorn. He says there are no “rights presentations” at Varick Street because it doesn’t have a big enough room. Thorn says that the facility’s officials have no intention of permitting the presentations and don’t believe that they are out of compliance with the standards. “The standard was written for long-term facilities,” he says. “We believe it does not properly take into account the situation at Varick Street,” In any case, he says it is exempt because the standard says that the facility must select an environment consistent with security. “That is our practice. We do not have any rooms to accommodate a large group,” Thorn says. Navarro and Morawetz say the claim of a space problem is news to them. “There is an unused courtroom,” Navarro says, “which is where they do the presentations at the Florence detention facility” in Arizona. ABA officials say group events already take place at Varick Street. “There is a rec room and officials said jamborees and karaoke are held there on occasion,” says Chris Nugent, director of an ABA immigration pro bono project. In November, an INS official in Washington acknowledged that there is a problem at Varick Street and said that it would be fixed. John O’Malley, assistant commissioner for detention and deportation, said of the standards, “We are serious about implementing them, but it’s not a light switch we can turn on tomorrow.” Tangeman, who was hired six months ago, says there will be a meeting on Feb. 28 with New York officials on the standards. One goal: “to make sure the people who work for INS understand them and that everyone uses the same interpretation.” The advocates complain that no one at INS will communicate with them. Last June, frustrated by the lack of response to her letters and calls, Morawetz says, she withdrew the NYU clinic from the effort. “I could not put students on a project for the entire year with people who wouldn’t answer our letters or speak to us on the phone.” RETURN TO SENDER Navarro has persisted and has continued to make phone calls several times a month which she says have not been returned. Her certified letters have been returned marked “refused.” Thorn, the INS spokesman, denies that there is an effort to stonewall the lawyers. But a reporter’s experience in checking on a seemingly simple matter — whether Varick Street opens its mail — might mirror what the advocates say is the maddening experience of dealing with the agency. At first, Thorn said letters are never returned unopened. Later, he said letters sent directly to Varick Street are returned because mail must go through Federal Plaza, where the INS has its district office. But this was contradicted by other INS officials at Varick Street and Federal Plaza. Asked where to send mail for Varick Street, both said Varick Street. Confronted with this, Thorn, after consulting with his superiors, acknowledged that there was “a problem” with letters’ being returned marked “refused,” and that the agency was looking into it. Thorn insists that phone calls are generally returned. “If they are not, it is for a reason. And an example might be that calls that have already been addressed on more than one occasion may not be returned. Ms. Monroe had responded to these questions more than once, the message had been received, question asked and question answered.” Varick Street’s record on group rights presentations is not the center’s only violation of the standards, according to immigration advocates. They say that: � Legal Aid lawyers’ meetings with detainee clients are interrupted by lunch breaks. This was observed by an NLJ reporter in January. � Advocates’ phone numbers aren’t posted next to telephones in at least one unit, according to the ABA’s Nugent, who toured the facility in December. � The law library is sometimes missing necessary materials, Nugent says. He says INS officials admitted that materials are frequently destroyed or removed from the library and are not promptly replaced. � Detainees are routinely strip-searched after meetings with their lawyers. Nugent says officials acknowledged during the tour that any visit with a lawyer raises the reasonable suspicion that the standard demands for a strip search. The INS’ Thorn disputes all this. He says that the facility meets the law library standards. He denies that attorney visits are interrupted by lunch breaks but says, “We feel a hot meal in a cafeteria is better than a sandwich in a bag.” He says that strip searches are conducted only if there is a reason to believe that contraband has been passed. Llewelyn Pritchard, who chairs the ABA’s immigration pro bono program, sees Varick Street as a test case. “The Varick Street situation will make clear to us whether the standards will be followed everywhere,” he says. For now, he says, “Varick Street seems to be thumbing its nose at the standards.” The standards do not have the force of regulations, so outsiders cannot enforce them through legal action. That was the single biggest disappointment in the five years the ABA worked with the INS to come up with some sort of minimum standards, says former ABA president Philip Anderson. Mr. Anderson says he thinks that what he calls the “massive resistance” that Varick Street has shown is unusual among INS facilities. “I hope to see the standards turned into regulations and we’ll keep pressing for that,” he says.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.