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Five months after starting a project to find lawyers for immigrants seeking asylum, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) says it has uncovered a serious problem: Record-keeping ineptitude by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is compromising the legal rights of immigrants facing life-threatening situations. In a report, the organization says it found that in 33 percent of 59 cases that it had handled since January, the information provided about the inmates was inaccurate. In more than 54 percent of the cases, the information was either inaccurate or incomplete. An official of the agency providing the information says he is aware of the problem and the government is working on it. Christina DeConcini, the director of advocacy at CLINIC, says, “There are significant government-created obstacles that effectively prevent pro se detainees from not only being represented by pro bono counsel, but from being able to represent themselves before the BIA, despite their clear desire and intention to do so.” (BIA is an acronym for the Board of Immigration Appeals.) As an example, the group points to a 22-year-old Colombian named Luis who says he fled his country after a paramilitary group threatened to kill him and then drafted him. He became a pro se asylum-seeker, and under the new program, the government sent his name to the organization. CLINIC wrote to him, offering pro bono representation. Its letter was returned marked “refused by recipient.” The advocates followed up with a phone call and discovered that Luis had never seen the letter, much less refused it. The INS had given an incomplete address. COMPELLING CASE Two days before Luis’ court deadline, Boston Lawyer Ilana Greenstein agreed to help him — and he proved to have a compelling case. The appeals board took the rare step of overturning an immigration judge. It granted him asylum only three weeks after Greenstein’s presentation, she says. Greenstein, an associate at Kaplan, O’Sullivan & Friedman, specializes in appellate defense in deportation cases. She says that her representation obviously made a critical difference. “This wasn’t an obvious case,” she says. “For the board to have made the connection it did, there needed to be a good deal of legal research so they could look at other cases and draw connections from those cases to the story Luis told.” The pro bono pilot project was started in January because nonprofit immigration groups were concerned that pro se litigants were unable to identify and present the pertinent issues in their cases before immigration judges. Government data show that 57 percent of 4,338 detainees appearing before the appeals board in 1999 didn’t have representation, resulting in almost 200 pro se detained appeals per month, CLINIC says. A survey by Georgetown University last year found that asylum-seekers are four to six times as likely to be granted asylum when lawyers represent them. CLINIC coordinates the pro bono project with several other nongovernmental organizations. For cases and the names of clients, it relies on the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that oversees immigration judges. That office gets its information from the INS. In its report, released in May, CLINIC said that it found four types of problems in the information: � The wrong detention facility was listed in 20 percent of the cases. � In 16 percent, immigrants were described as detained when they had been released or deported. � In 24 percent, the information didn’t include an inmate number or booking number. � Records in 56 percent lacked the names of the detention facilities. Steven Lang, pro bono coordinator for the judge’s agency, says he is aware of the problem and is “concerned about the accuracy of the information coming from INS.” He says the agency is working on the problem and, in the meantime, his office has agreed to verify the addresses before they are passed on to the pro bono project. When asked about the larger implications of court communication with pro se litigants who are not a part of the project, Richard Kenney, a spokesman for the judges, says the issue is being addressed case by case. He adds that there is a working group that addresses larger problems with the cases of detained immigrants. “In general, we meet with INS to discuss problems that come up and try to find solutions,” he says. Inaccurate and incomplete information was not the only problem that CLINIC reported. It said that INS transfer policies and its sluggishness in delivering mail also jeopardize pro se detainees’ access to counsel. VANISHING CLIENT In one case, CLINIC tried to contact a woman who is a national of India and who was seeking a pro se appeal, but her detention resulted in her losing access to the courts. Her lawyer, Nadine Wettstein, says that the woman, whom she declined to name, is seeking asylum for abuse suffered at the hands of her parents and public ostracism because she refuses to marry. The woman’s case is complicated by the fact that she has mental health problems, a fact noted by the immigration judge who originally denied her claim. CLINIC sent her a letter via Federal Express offering a lawyer’s services on Jan. 25, 2000. FedEx records indicate that it arrived the next day. Despite follow-up phone calls by the advocates, the project did not receive notice of her desire for a lawyer until two months later. The woman had been transferred to another facility, but not until two weeks after the letter arrived. When the Indian asylum-seeker returned her papers to CLINIC, she notified the organization that she had received them on March 5. Her appeal was summarily dismissed at the end of March because her papers weren’t filed by a Feb. 16 deadline. Wettstein, the director of the legal action center for the American Immigration Law Foundation in Washington, D.C., took on the case and succeeded in getting a stay of the woman’s deportation. She is trying to get the case reopened. “The case highlights to me the consequence of the INS detention policies and how they really do interfere with people’s statutory and constitutional rights to have a lawyer and a fair hearing,” Wettstein says. “This woman’s been detained for two years now, and she’s been facing deportation to a place that she fears, with no lawyer.” CLINIC’s DeConcini says that this is not an isolated case and that transfers, a routine INS practice in handling detainees, have complicated other lawyers’ ability to locate clients as well. INS RESPONDS INS spokeswoman Karen Kraushaar says the agency is reviewing the issues raised in the report and will respond through appropriate channels. “We look forward to working with CLINIC to try to improve any or all of the problem areas that the report raises,” she says. Deconcini says that she hopes changes will be made so the project can spend more time recruiting lawyers. “We’ve got 125 volunteers signed up but we’re going to need to double that in the next year,” she says.

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