Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Guest Post by M. Isabel Medina: A Bird's Eye View of the Right to Counsel for Immigrants Detained in the La Salle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana


Guest Blogger M. Isabel Medina

Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) – I remember the case from law school and it is one of those cases that stay with you.  It’s a case that spoke so firmly to our profession and the constitutional right that our profession guards – the right to counsel.   It’s the case where the attorney is trying to see the client, and the client keeps asking to see the attorney, and they are both at the police station, but the police continue to deny both the ability to meet and talk before the person is interrogated by police.  The case fascinated me because the situation seemed so remarkable, really, incredible, and, of course, the Supreme Court, at that time, gave what I thought the correct response.  I still think it is the correct response but what I missed then, and sometimes now, is how many of us think, then and now, it was not.  But Escobedo is a Sixth Amendment case that applies in the context of criminal prosecutions so although I have thought of it often in the past three weeks, it is uncertain precedent to rely on in the context of immigration proceedings.  It also strikes me now who Escobedo is, and I remember when we first discussed this case in law school, the complete absence of a discussion about his race and national origin, in the classroom.

I also think often of Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893) and the U.S. Supreme Court’s reasoning that “The order of deportation is not a punishment for crime,”  And what this reasoning means in a world where persons are incarcerated, prevented from touching, hugging and kissing their closest relatives, including their children, simply because they are immigrants in removal proceedings (a civil process, the Court continues to tell us – not a criminal process) and where persons are not allowed to meet with their attorneys in a room in which they can go over documents or testimony together, but instead meet only in cubicles that are completely separated from each other except for a quarter inch slit at the bottom of a plastic/glass divider.  So it is literally physically impossible to point at a statement in a document and ask the client a question about that statement.  And it is in fact physically impossible for a client to hand over to their attorney documents.  They have to be taken apart and slipped across through that quarter inch slit.  It took a client over an hour to slip over to me part of the file.


This is the world at La Salle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, one of the Geo owned and managed detention centers in Louisiana that currently houses only immigrant detainees. But the guards at La Salle know better – they are housing criminals at La Salle and the guards think of them as criminals, call them criminals, and treat them like criminals.  Criminals, apparently, are undeserving of any kind of protection. The reason for the cubicle, I am told, is to make impossible the passing of contraband.  I ask what contraband.  I ask further, by attorneys?  Attorneys are bringing in contraband?  I ask amazed.  And the answer I am given is yes, you’d be surprised.  And I persist, What?  What kind of things are attorneys bringing in?  And the answer I get eventually is things like food. 

At La Salle, inmates are separated and designated by clothing of different colors into different groups based on their alleged “dangerousness” or “security.” Inmates are written up for asking questions or making requests or complaining about things like missed mail or failures to deliver mail.  Inmates are also restricted in accessing outside time, private time, and so many of the things those of us who are free take for granted, and those of us who are committed to serve a criminal sentence are denied.  But these “inmates” aren’t serving a criminal sentence, as I remind the guards.  They are civil detainees – they are not supposed to be treated like criminals serving a criminal sentence. 

At La Salle, civil detention is criminal detention.   I have had greater physical access to persons convicted of murder or persons who’ve been accused of criminal offenses.  I’m somewhat nonplussed by the restrictions on meeting with someone who is facing removal from this country; and the impact of those restrictions on their right to counsel.

But I am even more nonplussed when those restrictions start being applied directly to me. In order to see a client, I have to turn my car keys in to the facility.  I cannot take my bag or purse with me.  This is for my safety I am told.  Every time I visit a person at La Salle, I ask for access to the person.  I know there is a room at La Salle in the visiting area that allows for that.  I know that the facility has made this room available to consular officials visiting persons in the facility.  But the facility refuses to make this room available for attorney-client visits.  I ask every time and am refused every time.  I leave multiple phone messages for the Warden but no one ever calls me back and no one with authority ever agrees to talk to me.

When I come for the hearing at La Salle Immigration Court with the family of a person I am representing, the guard refuses to allow the children of the person into the courtroom. I ask why not. Federal policy is that children 12 and older can attend court proceedings.  There are signs in the waiting room at the facility that state this.  But when I come with six law students and the family, the officer says no they have to be 15 and older (after looking the children over).  So I ask why again.  I explain that I’ve checked with the Court administrator and federal guidelines and the ICE–ERO on the case and the Court administrator said the children were allowed to attend.  No one had indicated otherwise.  So the officer goes off to check with someone.  When she returns she says the ICE officer in charge of the facility has determined that the children cannot go in.  I ask why?  She says that’s what he’s decided.  I say may I speak to him.  That is not consistent with the federal policy and the court administrator approved it.  I’d like to speak to him.  She goes out again and comes back a bit later.  Then a person not in uniform comes in waves to me and takes me into a bigger office.  There he proceeds to threaten me with arrest – first, it sounds like he is going to arrest me himself but then he threatens that he is going to call the sheriff and have the sheriff arrest me.  I ask him why he would do that.  I am just trying to find out why the children can’t attend the hearing, given that it’s federal policy and I’ve gotten approval of the court administrator.  He is physically shaking with anger as he tells me again he is going to call the sheriff and have me arrested.  I agree to be arrested but remind him that the facility operates by force of law and regulation – it can’t operate as if law doesn’t apply here.  I am an attorney, I explain, I have to be able to assert my client’s interests. 



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