Congressman José E. Serrano

Representing the 15th District of New York

Congressman Serrano Leads 40 Members of Congress in Urging DHS Secretary to Reform ICE Telephone Access Policies

Sep 19, 2016
Press Release
Access to Telephones Key to Ensuring Fair Trials

Washington, DC –Congressman José E. Serrano today led a letter signed by 40 Members of Congress urging the Secretary of Homeland Security to expand access to telephones at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ICE contract detention facilities.  Earlier this year, ICE settled a lawsuit in the Northern District of California in which they committed to numerous reforms to expand access to telephones at four detention facilities.  The letter urges the Department to expand to all ICE detention facilities these important reforms, which include: more telephones, free calls to detainees, more access to toll free numbers for all individuals in detention, increased education for detainees of telephone policies, and access to phone booths and other more private locations to ensure privacy.

“Many individuals in immigration detention are held at facilities far from where their trial will take place and from where their family lives.  Because of this, access to telephones is crucial in allowing these individuals to obtain legal counsel or build a case in immigration court. Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, deserves a fair trial. Expanding the important reforms that were recently implemented in parts of California will ensure that all individuals that have been detained by ICE have access to these basic rights. Now that this important precedent has been set, we urge ICE to commit to expanding these policies to all detention facilities nationwide,” said Congressman Serrano.

Letter Text:

September XX, 2016

The Honorable Jeh Johnson
Secretary of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528

Dear Secretary Johnson,

We write to urge you to commit to reforming the telephone access policies at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ICE contract detention facilities nationwide. Easy and meaningful access to telephones is crucial to ensure fairness for detained individuals who are seeking to obtain counsel and to review their options in a removal proceeding. The agency recently agreed to a number of important reforms in response to a lawsuit in the Northern District of California, and we believe that ICE should institute those reforms at all facilities. 

Earlier this year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement entered into a settlement agreement in the case of Lyon v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agreement, which was executed in June, mandates reforms to expand telephone access and privacy for individuals detained at four detention facilities in California. We applaud the agency for settling this case, and we believe it will provide many detained individuals with the ability to obtain effective counsel and mount vigorous defenses in their immigration proceedings, consistent with their constitutional rights. 

However, we remain concerned by the tens of thousands of individuals detained by ICE in facilities that do not fall under this settlement agreement. That is why we write to urge ICE to commit to expanding these policies to all detention facilities nationwide. The issues that affect these four detention facilities are common to many ICE and ICE contract detention facilities, and we believe that a commitment to reform will prevent further costly litigation and ensure the constitutional rights of all individuals detained by ICE.

Access to telephones is a crucial element for those seeking to obtain counsel and mount a defense at their removal hearing (whether with or without counsel). Because many detainees are housed at detention facilities far from their city of residence, and far from the immigration court that will eventually hear their case, it is difficult to develop a defense absent adequate phone access. In the facilities at issue in the Lyon case, unnecessary physical and technical barriers (such as phone systems that blocked detainees from leaving voicemails or navigating automated answering systems, limited their ability to make calls during business hours, failed to provide privacy for confidential conversations, offered no access to international calls, and provided no regular methods for scheduling calls or receiving messages from outside callers) impeded basic tasks such as obtaining and staying in contact with counsel, gathering relevant documents, and securing witnesses. Even in the situations where ICE had created workarounds to partially address these deficiencies, many detainees were not fully aware of their telephone rights. Moreover, for those who are indigent, even making a phone call can be next to impossible without access to free case-related phone calls. That is why these reforms are so important.

Although we are not asking for a specific timeline in making these changes nationwide, we do ask for your pledge to ensure that all detainees can benefit from these reforms.  We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your response.  

Congressman José E. Serrano has represented The Bronx in Congress since 1990.