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Trump administration is blocking immigrants from free legal help, attorneys allege

ICE has stopped following its own policies to reduce access to legal counsel, attorneys say in a complaint.
Image: A Spanish and English welcome sign is seen above a door in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas
A Spanish and English welcome sign is seen above a door in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas on Thursday, July 31, 2014. Federal officials gave a tour of the immigration detention facility that has been retooled to house adults with children who have been apprehended at the border.Eric Gay / AP file

AUSTIN, Texas — An immigration legal group has filed a formal complaint against the Trump administration saying it is blocking detained immigrants from free legal services.

The complaint filed Wednesday by RAICES, a nonprofit immigrant legal services group, accuses Immigration and Customs Enforcement of creating barriers for people held at the Karnes, Texas, immigration detention facility to meet with legal teams.

The complaints are many and include such things as ICE failing to make space available for private meetings with clients, setting new requirements for lawyers to meet with clients, so that fewer people can meet with attorneys, and eliminating a “walk-in” signup list.

“ICE drastically changed its policies recently in a way that significantly limits the ability of pro bono attorneys to work with detained persons at Karnes,” the legal group said in its complaint.

In its eight-page complaint, RAICES said that ICE has stopped following its own policies, based on its own detention standards, that were implemented in 2014.

The policies, though imperfect, allowed people detained in Karnes access to counsel at no government expense, RAICES said in its complaint.

“Simply put, the policies worked,” the complaint states.

The complaint was addressed to Deborah Achim, deputy field officer, and Meilissa DeLeon, assistant field officer in San Antonio.

Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman, emailed a statement in response to NBC News’ request for comment. The statement said that “no standard provisions have been changed at Karnes.”

ICE stated that the women-only detention center, which was first used for families, has a higher average of immigrants than it previously did. More women have private attorneys, according to ICE, so the number of group legal meetings were reduced can be reduced, the agency stated.

ICE stated it provides 12 hours of legal visitation daily, even though the standards call for eight on weekdays and four on Saturdays and Sundays. The statement also said that ICE exceeds standards for attorneys to meet with multiple clients and potential clients daily, and includes the opportunity for “walk-in” appointments and daily private group meetings.

There have been other instances of the Trump administration limiting legal assistance to immigrants, including children.

Last year, the Office of Refugee Resettlement told organizations it had funded to represent unaccompanied minors in court to stop taking new cases, thus reducing money to the organizations.

The Department of Justice had suspended a legal orientation program for immigrants in custody but later reversed that decision, pending a cost review.

Other legal groups signed the complaint, including professors with the University of Texas School of Law in Austin and the St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio, as well as an attorney and partner with the private firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Some of the specific complaints are:

— Since April 15, ICE has been barring RAICES volunteers from the visitation center for legal meetings until there was one prospective client or current client for every volunteer legal team member in the room.

RAICES said that before April 15, volunteers could meet with 100-150 people daily. Now they meet with 40 to 60 individuals daily.

— Also on April 15, ICE and staff of The GEO Group, the private operator of Karnes, stopped allowing people to sign up for legal help through a “walk-in” signup list.

— Although a detainee requested the presence of a RAICES attorney at her asylum interview on April 17, GEO staff refused because they would “have to go find him.” As a result, the woman’s interview was rescheduled for a later date.