Through the Detention Center Looking Glass

[Editor Note: This article is courtesy of our guest blogger Camille J. Mackler of the Law Office of Camille J. Mackler, who provides us with a glimpse into the maze that makes up our U.S. detention centers for the unlucky immigrants who have been detained.]

It’s 9PM on a Tuesday night when the number from a local detention facility appears on my Caller ID. The connection, as always, is bad. I can barely hear the voice on the other end, even as I can tell he is probably shouting to be heard. He tells me his friend, Camara*, gave him my name and told him to call me. “You remember Camara? You got him released from Delaney a few weeks ago.” Yes, of course I remember. “How can I help you?” “I really need to speak to you. Please, I need your help.”

Luckily for him, I was already planning on meeting another detained client the next day at a detention center nearby. One of the biggest challenges in representing detained immigrants is the speed with which you have to handle the entire case. Detainees can be moved to different facilities, even different states, or deported with no advance warning. Court cases are moved along at rapid-fire rate, giving you barely enough time to collect necessary documents to support a client’s claims. If you wait even a week to meet with a client, it may be too late. These new challenges confronting immigration lawyers today have become hot-button issues, and are sure to be a frequent topic of conversation at this year’s annual conference of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

On this particular day, I set out after lunch. Immigrants arrested in the New York City area are detained in New Jersey. I’ve lived here for over 10 years, but I never felt the need for a car until last year, when my detained client caseload grew so substantially that my Zipcar® account became one of my top five office must-haves. I’m visiting clients at the Essex County Correctional Facility and Delaney Hall. The two facilities sit next to each other in the midst of warehouses that serve the Port of Newark.

I start with Essex, a massive county jail where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rents bed space. To reach the dorms where immigrant detainees are housed, I walk through a labyrinth of echoing concrete hallways, rolling doors and climbing staircases reminiscent of an Escherdrawing. When I arrive at the visitation area, I can see into one of the dorms, a large room with metal bunk beds all around and tables in the middle where inmates eat and pass the day. Behind a glass wall, there’s a small gym. A TV mounted high on the wall is airing some soap opera, while daylight peeps through a skylight. Another attorney is using the visitation room, so the sergeant lets me use another all-purpose room.

My first client visit is with George*. We are currently appealing the denial of his removal order. I remember the day of his individual hearing, when he wore an orange jumpsuit and had his right hand shackled to his waist in front of his entire family. While I spoke to him in the hallway after the hearing, his five-year-old daughter tried to run to him to give him a kiss. No contact is allowed between detainees and family members, so the ICE agent grabbed her by the arm and threw her back. Today, I’m trying to reassure George that our appeal means he’s not at immediate risk of deportation, but he’s distracted by corrections officers and other inmates walking in and out of the room, looking for cleaning supplies or a quiet place to talk. As we finish and he heads back to his dorm, George turns towards me one last time. “Camille, call my wife and tell her you came? She likes to know you came to see me.”

I can see Delaney Hall from across the parking lot, a few bare-branched trees and a tall metal fence in between us. In stark contrast to Essex’s garish dark turquoise plastic siding, Delaney Hall reminds me of the set for Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Once inside, I walk by a mural painted by detainees on a cinder block wall. It features the word “welcome” in twenty different languages. Everything is made of cinder block here. I can hear hallway conversations echoing as I wait for my client, and my own words resonate loudly as I try to keep the details of our conversation confidential.

My late-night caller came to the U.S. seeking protection. He thought he would find freedom and safety here. He tore his fake passport up on the plane, found a Customs and Borders agent at the airport, and told them he wanted to apply for asylum. He can’t understand why, as a result, he was taken to prison and made to wear a uniform. He is struggling in English, and is relieved when I tell him I speak his native French. The immigration judge told him he must find a lawyer, or at his next hearing he will have to proceed on his own. Luckily, he has friends on the outside who can help pay for a private attorney since the government won’t give him one. Yes, I can take his case, I tell him, where are your wife and kids? “I don’t know,” he replies, their village was attacked, but he hasn’t been able to call anyone since being detained to obtain news. “My wife was pregnant,“ he adds. “When the village was attacked, I don’t know if she gave birth. I can’t call from here.”

After leaving Delaney Hall, I drop my car off in Jersey City and take the ferry back to Manhattan. As we cross the Hudson River, I watch the sun set over Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. “Some promise!” I say to myself as I disembark and make my way home. * Names of clients have been changed to protect their identity.

[Editor’s note: Camille J. Mackler is a practicing immigration attorney who handles family-based immigration applications, defense of removal cases and federal appeals.  She has represented detained and non-detained immigrants before USCIS offices, immigration courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and federal circuit courts all over the country.  She also founded and manages the blog Immigration in Pictures™, a photo blog aimed at re-centering the debate on immigration today.  Ms. Mackler is also a finalist for the Annual Conference 180 (AC180) Social Media Competition sponsored by AILA.  You may follow her on Twitter at @cmackler.]