Update: In 2012, ICE issued a directive limiting transfers of immigrant detainees. For more information, please click here .
(Washington, DC) - The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's increasing practice of transferring immigrants facing deportation to detention centers far away from their homes severely curtails their ability to challenge their deportation, Human Rights Watch says in a report released today. The agency made 1.4 million detainee transfers in the decade from 1999 through 2008, the report says.
The 88-page report, "Locked Up Far Away: The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States ," presents new data analyzed for Human Rights Watch by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University. The data show that 53 percent of the 1.4 million transfers have taken place since 2006, and most occur between state and local jails that contract with the agency, known as ICE, to provide detention bed space. The report's findings are based on the new data and interviews with officials, immigration lawyers, detainees, and their family members.
"ICE is increasingly subjecting detainees to a chaotic game of musical chairs," said Alison Parker, deputy US director for Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "And it's a game with dire consequences since it may keep them from finding an attorney or presenting evidence in their defense."
Many immigrants are first arrested and detained in major cities like Los Angeles or Philadelphia, places where immigrants have lived for decades and where their family members, employers, and attorneys also live. Days or months later, with no notice, many of these immigrants are loaded onto planes for transport to detention centers in remote corners of states such as Texas, California, and Louisiana (the three states most likely to receive transfers), the report found.
The detained immigrants have the right, under both US and international human rights law, to be represented in deportation hearings by an attorney of their choice and to present evidence in their defense. But once they are transferred, immigrants are often so far away from their lawyers, evidence, and witnesses that their ability to defend themselves in deportation proceedings is severely curtailed, the report found.
"Immigrant detainees should not be treated like so many boxes of goods - shipped to the most convenient place for ICE to store them," Parker said. "We are especially concerned that the transferred detainees may find that their chances of successfully fighting deportation or gaining asylum from persecution have just evaporated."
The federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) has jurisdiction over the largest number of the transferred detainees. Those transfers are of particular concern, Human Rights Watch said, because that court is widely known for decisions that are hostile to non-citizens and because the states within its jurisdiction collectively have the lowest ratio of immigration attorneys to immigration detainees in the country.
Human Rights Watch acknowledged that some detainee transfers are inevitable, but said that ICE and Congress should use reasonable and rights-protective checks on detainee transfers as the best state criminal justice systems do. The report recommends concrete steps to help create such a system.
Although ICE has recently announced plans to revamp its detention system, which may provide an opening for reforms, the agency previously has rejected recommendations to place enforceable constraints on its transfer power.
Human Rights Watch's report is being released on the same day (December 2) as the Constitution Project's  "Recommendations for Reforming our Immigration Detention System and Promoting Access to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings," finding that immigration detention is overused and immigrant detainees experience problems in accessing counsel and providing recommendations for reform. Also on December 2, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse will release detailed facility level data  on detainee transfers.
Testimony from detainees, family members, and attorneys about transfers:
"The transfers are devastating, absolutely devastating. [Detainees] are loaded onto a plane in the middle of the night. They have no idea where they are, no idea what [US] state they are in. I cannot overemphasize the psychological trauma to these people. What it does to their family members cannot be fully captured either. I have taken calls from seriously hysterical family members - incredibly traumatized people - sobbing on the phone, crying out, ‘I don't know where my son or husband is!'" - Rebecca Schreve, immigration attorney, El Paso, Texas, January 29, 2009.
"In New York when I was detained, I was about to get an attorney through one of the churches, but that went away once they sent me here to New Mexico.... All my evidence and stuff that I need is right there in New York. I've been trying to get all my case information from New York ... writing to ICE to get my records. But they won't give me my records; they haven't given me nothing. I'm just representing myself with no evidence to present." - Kevin H. (pseudonym), Otero County Processing Center, Chaparral, New Mexico, February 11, 2009.
"I have never represented someone who has not been in more than three detention facilities. Could be El Paso, Texas, a facility in Arizona, or they send people to Hawaii .... I have been practicing immigration law for more than a decade. Never once have I been notified of [my client's] transfer. Never." - Holly Cooper, immigration attorney and clinical professor of law, University of California Davis School of Law, Davis, California, January 27, 2009.
"Ever since they sent him there [to New Mexico], it's been a nightmare. My mother has blood pressure problems, and her pressure goes up and down like crazy now because of worrying about him and stuff. [His wife] has been terrified. She cries every night. And his baby asks for him, asks for "Papa." He kisses his photo. He starts crying as soon as he hears his father's voice on the phone even though he is only one.... Last week [my brother] called to say he can't do it anymore. He's going to sign the paper agreeing to his deportation." - Georgina V. (pseudonym), sister of detainee, Brooklyn, New York, January 23, 2008.
A detainee who was transferred 1,400 miles away to a detention facility in Texas after a few weeks in a detention center in southern California said that the difference for him was "like the difference between heaven and earth. At least in California I had a better chance. I could hire a[n] attorney to represent me. Now, here, I have no chance other than what the grace of God gives me." - Michael M. (pseudonym), Pearsall Detention Center, Pearsall, Texas, April 25, 2008.
A legal permanent resident originally from the Dominican Republic, who had been living in Philadelphia but was transferred to Texas said, "I had to call to try to get the police records myself. It took a lot of time. The judge got mad that I kept asking for more time. But eventually they arrived. I tried to put on the case myself. I lost." - Miguel A. (pseudonym), Port Isabel Service Processing Center, Los Fresnos, Texas, April 23, 2008.