This article from the Houston Chronicle highlights an ongoing problem with immigrant detention: detainees are often moved repeatedly, making it difficult (or impossible) for their families to keep track of them. And their lawyers.
If ICE plans to apprehend and detain immigrants, they need to have a reasonable plan in place to prevent this type of treatment. How can these detainees have a legitimate chance at a fair hearing if they are frequently moved away from their attorneys?
After Alejandro Sibaja was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Houston 15 months ago, he was transferred six times and finally ended up in Haskell, north of Abilene.
By the time an immigration judge in Dallas granted Sibaja a green card last Wednesday, his wife, Iris Lopez-Sibaja said she had spent countless hours trying to track him through the nation’s troubled immigration detention network, which faced criticism on Wednesday from government auditors and immigrant rights advocates for resulting in haphazard detainee transfers.By the time an immigration judge in Dallas granted Sibaja a green card last Wednesday, his wife, Iris Lopez-Sibaja said she had spent countless hours trying to track him through the nation’s troubled immigration detention network, which faced criticism on Wednesday from government auditors and immigrant rights advocates for resulting in haphazard detainee transfers.“It was tough. It was harder on my kids, though,” Lopez-Sibaja said. “They were the ones always asking where their dad was.”In separate reports released Wednesday, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security and the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch criticized the controversial and increasingly common practice of transferring immigration detainees to detention centers far from their families and attorneys.The OIG report found that ICE frequently fails to follow its own established procedures for detainee transfers, creating hardships for immigration detainees. The shuffling of immigration detainees from center to center, frequently because of a lack of bed space, has resulted in errors, delays and confusion for detainees, their attorneys, their relatives and the immigration court system, auditors found.
ICE officials issued a statement Wednesday saying the agency is in the process of overhauling the immigration detention system and plans to make reforms that will reduce the number of detainee transfers.The Human Rights Watch report, which was based on data obtained from ICE through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that the agency made 1.4 million detainee transfers from 1999 through 2008, with the numbers growing significantly in the past few years.Texas, which houses the largest share of the nation’s immigration detainees, led the U.S. both in terms of sending and receiving immigrant detainees, accounting for more than 334,000 total transfers, the report found.Alison Parker, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in the U.S., said the transfers often jeopardize detainees’ court cases, separating them from their attorneys and frequently sending them to remote locations, such as rural Texas, where they have a slimmer chance of finding an immigration lawyer to represent them.The court cases also may suffer because detainees are separated from the evidence or witnesses they may need for deportation or asylum hearings, Parker said.Attorneys and immigrant advocates conceded that some transfers are inevitable and may be necessary to meet the specialized needs of detainees or to prepare immigrants for removal from the U.S. But some expressed concern about the growth of transfers based on a lack of bed space.Timothy Hart, a Houston immigration attorney, said he recently had a client transferred from Houston to Oakdale, La. Several clients in the past year were sent to Atlanta, and one ended up in Pennsylvania, he said.Houston immigration attorney Steven Villarreal said he had to stop representing Sibaja after he was transferred from Houston and ended up in Haskell.“I told the family it would be too expensive,” Villarreal said, factoring in the plane tickets and hotel bills for hearings and the trial. “I had to refer him to another attorney up there.”“It happens all the time,” Villarreal said of the transfers.Sibaja, 33, was picked up in Houston on a bad check warrant in August 2008 and turned over to immigration officials, who found he had a conviction as a teenager for aggravated robbery. Sibaja, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 12 or 13 years old, was put into removal proceedings.He was transferred first from Houston to Conroe, then from Conroe to Mississippi just before Hurricane Ike hit. Then Sibaja was sent back to Houston before being transferred to Amarillo and then to Big Spring. Eventually, he ended up in Haskell, and his case was assigned to the immigration court in Dallas.At first, Sibaja’s wife made the seven-hour drive to visit him every other week. But with two kids and a house slipping into foreclosure in Houston, she said she eventually cut the visits back to once a month, and then to once every other month.Lopez-Sibaja said her husband’s detention was hardest on their son, who was 3 when his father was first detained, and their daughter, who celebrated her sixth and seventh birthdays without him.On Nov. 25, an immigration judge granted Sibaja lawful permanent resident status based on his seven-year marriage to Lopez-Sibaja, a U.S. citizen, and the hardship his deportation would cause for his children. He was home in Houston in time for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner.“It was a long, emotional and tough journey,” Lopez-Sibaja said. “Sometimes now when I look at him, I can’t believe he’s here.”