Immigration lawyers claim the federal government made it so difficult to reach detainees in Georgia during the pandemic that it violates their constitutional protections.
This is not a new problem, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The nonprofit advocacy group has been battling a lawsuit for more access to immigration centers in Georgia for two years.
But with the pandemic, attorney Erin Argueta, of the group’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, said things had gotten a lot worse.
She lives in Lumpkin, Georgia, near the Stewart Detention Center, one of the United States customs and immigration services. She said she was stuck contacting inmates remotely and that is extremely slow.
“We’ll have to wait a week to arrange a video call with them,” said Argueta. “And then we have to send them something to sign and wait for them to give it back to us.”
Afterward, she said she needed to get records that could help with the detainees’ cases. Argueta said at the time that she’s mailing things out, waiting for video calls, the inmates’ hearings may have come and gone.
Immigration courts haven’t slowed at all with the COVID-19 virus, Argueta said. When inmates ask for help, they may only have a few weeks before their final court date.
“I had one recently when I finally got the person’s medical records. He withdrew his request for relief a few days earlier,” she said. “So he’s waiting to be deported.”
She had hoped to lobby for his release because of his health.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is asking a federal judge to admit this Stewart County detention center and another in Irwin County. The group wants more video calling devices and simply the ability to fax or email documents.
The lawyers said this was even more important now with the coronavirus outbreak – to make sure those detained are healthy.
More than 40 employees at the Stewart Detention Center have tested positive for the virus. So far, ICE has only confirmed 11 cases of detainees.
Proponents have argued that there needs to be more. They say it is impossible for inmates to create social distance within the facility, which can accommodate up to 2,000 people. Dozens of inmates can sleep on bunk beds in the same open spaces.
Families inside are concerned. Patricia Martinez’s husband is being held there. The virus only increases their concerns about his case.
“I mean who knows, I don’t know if he’s sick,” Martinez said. “I don’t know if he has it.”
Because ICE no longer allows family members to visit detention centers, she has not seen her husband since he was arrested in February.
The agency has not blocked personal access for lawyers. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that its staff could not visit immigration centers without putting inmates at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
A federal court could rule on the attorneys’ motion for an injunction to expand distance communications any day. The application also includes two detention centers in Louisiana.
ICE said it had no comment on any pending litigation.