SAN ANTONIO — Lawyers representing immigrant mothers held in a South Texas detention center say the women have been denied counsel and coerced into accepting ankle-monitoring bracelets as a condition of release, even after judges made clear that paying their bonds would suffice.
In a letter Monday to Sarah Saldana, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the leaders of a volunteer lawyers' project said they were "dismayed by the lack of transparency, and the coercion, disorganization, and confusion" surrounding recent releases. Among the irregularities cited were summons to courtrooms scrawled on yellow sticky notes, no counsel or judge present in court, and women being told that the prior word of immigration judges "has no value."
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement that the agency would review the claims and "respond directly" to the lawyers. "ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care," the statement added.
Between 70 and 100 women were called into courtrooms at the 50-acre Dilley campus last week and told by ICE officials that they could be released with ankle monitors in lieu of bond, according to a motion filed by R. Andrew Free, a Nashville lawyer working with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.
ICE appears to want ankle monitors, which use global positioning technology, on the majority of women released, Free said in an interview. The agency's actions "are misleading people about their rights," he said.
Three women wearing ankle monitors waited Monday in a San Antonio home for the bus tickets that would get them to family members in other cities. One woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name of Eliud out of fear of reprisals, said that she left Honduras with her two teenage sons, who were being forced into a gang.
She said she would rather not be wearing the ankle monitor, which itches her skin and keeps her up at night, but wasn't given a choice.
"When people see me, the first thing they see is this (ankle monitor) and they think I am a criminal," she said.
Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney volunteering at Dilley, said that in her 20 years of practice she has never seen ICE add a monitoring device or impose other conditions after an immigration judge has set bond. She said the bracelet monitors were cumbersome, conspicuous, and required constant charging and were another tacit attempt at deterrence.
"There is a stigma," Lichter said. "Everyone is going to think that they are criminals."
Free said his client was among those called into a courtroom to sign the agreement, though a judge had recently reduced her bond from $7,000 to $1,500, which she'd planned on paying. A deportation officer said that even after her bond was paid, an ankle-monitoring device would also be placed on her, according to the motion. She asked to speak to her lawyer but was denied. Two similar situations were cited in affidavits, and Free added that he has heard of at least a dozen similar cases.
Free said he did not oppose women having the choice of a bracelet or bond but that "we want that choice free of coercion and duress." Pushing the monitors is an abuse of authority, he said, that "threatens the entire immigration court process."
After tens of thousands of migrant mothers and their children, mostly from Central America, crossed the Rio Grande last summer the administration opened two large detention centers, a 500-bed facility in Karnes City and the enormous 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, both south of San Antonio.
In recent weeks, in the face of mounting political pressure and a federal lawsuit challenging the detention of children, ICE began moving families through the centers faster, allowing many women to receive ankle monitors instead of paying bonds. Last Friday a federal judge in California ruled that detaining children in these centers did violate the terms of a 1997 settlement, and that families needed to be released rapidly.
The letter, signed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and other immigrant rights groups, also says that the women are not receiving adequate information from ICE officers about their obligations in the immigration system and that the agency has not responded to the groups' request to have lawyers do pre-release orientations. They said this "sets up the women for failure." The lawyers say that similar tactics are happening in the facility in Karnes City. Until recently both Dilley and Karnes held about 2,000 people combined.
Last fall ICE privately acknowledged to a group of immigrant advocate organizations that about 70 percent of immigrant families released in the United States never showed up weeks later for follow-up appointments.
In an audio recording of a confidential meeting obtained by The Associated Press, an unidentified ICE official acknowledge the no-show figure while explaining the administration's decision in June 2014 to open a temporary detention facility at the Border Patrol training facility in Artesia, New Mexico. Two family jails were later opened in Texas, and the Artesia facility was closed down. There is a third smaller facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
The ICE official said during that meeting that it was necessary to detain families to ensure they didn't vanish.
Part of the government's original rationale for opening the detention centers was to deter more women and children from coming to the United States. Many of the families are fleeing escalating gang violence, as well as domestic violence in their home countries, and are seeking asylum here.
Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report