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updated 7/28/2009 3:45:18 PM ET 2009-07-28T19:45:18

Immigrant advocates say the federal government has failed to meet its own standards for detaining immigrants, making it unduly difficult for immigrants to defend themselves in court and fight to remain in the country.

A report released Tuesday says detainees face limited access to phones, mail and law libraries in violation of federal standards. The authors based their findings on more than 18,000 pages of documents that showed facilities across the country limited detainees' access to legal materials and transferred them without proper notice.

"Our concern is we have this deep belief in the American justice system that the truth will eventually come out and those individuals who have meritorious cases will be granted relief," said Karen Tumlin, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center who co-authored the report. "We can't have any faith that that proposition will actually hold true in this monstrous immigration system."

The study was based on inspection reports of dozens of facilities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the American Bar Association and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees between 2001 and 2005.

Report follows complaints
It comes after criticism over medical care in facilities and long-standing complaints by immigration attorneys that their clients are transferred too often, making it hard to represent them.

Dora Schriro, special adviser to the Homeland Security Secretary on detention and removal, said the study was thorough but outdated since the government has revamped its detention standards and inspection procedures.

"That is strong evidence of continuous improvement, to go back and recognize that these issues and government are not static, and that things change," she said.

Schriro declined to comment on the allegations that predate her tenure, which began this year.

Detention has grown in recent years, with the federal government holding more than 32,000 detainees each day. Over the last four years, the budget for keeping immigrants in custody has nearly doubled to $1.7 billion, according to ICE.

The report, which looked at federal facilities and local jails that partner with ICE to house 67 percent of detainees, stated that:

  • 19 out of 138 facilities reviewed by ICE in 2004 and 2005 had no outdoor recreation.
  • 13 of these facilities violated rules allowing detainees to call courts, attorneys and consular offices.
  • 24 of these facilities lacked law libraries.

It also found ICE reviews sometimes overlooked violations reported by other reviewers.

Performance-based standards
The authors recommended that detention standards should be legally binding. They urged the government to make reviews public and make it easier for relatives and attorneys to track detainees' whereabouts.

ICE created new performance-based detention standards in 2008. It also hired outside companies to carry out inspections.

Schriro declined to comment on making the standards binding, citing pending litigation.

Marlene Jaggernauth, 44, said she had a hard time getting a writing implement at the beginning of her 11-month stint in four Florida detention facilities in 2003.

The Trinidad native said she represented herself in immigration court but had limited access to legal materials. She said she had to beg guards for outdoor recreation time and to see a doctor, and her requests weren't always honored.

"It was just a nightmare, and I could not believe it," said Jaggernauth, who was allowed to return to the country after she won a federal court challenge. "I never thought people's rights could be so violated in the United States."

Louis Piscopo, a Southern California immigration attorney, said his clients often complain about being shuttled between different facilities, which makes it difficult to stay in touch with family and, at times, their attorneys.

"Some people after they've been moved around, they just want to get out," Piscopo said.

The report provided no examples of immigrants who gave up on their cases expressly because of detention conditions. Ranjana Natarajan, a former ACLU attorney and co-author, said the evidence has been largely anecdotal.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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