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Immigrants In Detention Centers Are Often Hundreds Of Miles From Legal Help

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

by Patrick G. Lee

One morning in February, lawyer Marty Rosenbluth set off from his Hillsborough, North Carolina, home to represent two anxious clients in court. He drove about eight hours southwest, spent the night in a hotel and then got up around 6 a.m. to make the final 40-minute push to his destination: a federal immigration court and detention center in the tiny rural Georgia town of Lumpkin.

During two brief hearings over two days, Rosenbluth said, he convinced an immigration judge to grant both of his new clients more time to assess their legal options to stay in the United States. Then he got in his car and drove the 513 miles back home.

“Without an attorney, it’s almost impossible to win your case in the immigration courts. You don’t even really know what to say or what the standards are,” said Rosenbluth, who works for a private law firm and took on the cases for a fee. “You may have a really, really good case. But you simply can’t package it in a way that the court can understand.”

His clients that day were lucky. Only 6 percent of the men held at the Lumpkin complex — a 2,001-bed detention center and immigration court — have legal representation, according to a 2015 study in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Nationwide, it’s not much better, the study of data from October 2006 to September 2012 found: Just 14 percent of detainees have lawyers.

That percentage is likely to get even smaller under the Trump administration, which has identified 21,000 potential new detention beds to add to the approximately 40,000 currently in use. In January, President Trump signed an executive order telling the secretary of homeland security, who oversees the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, to “immediately” start signing contracts for detention centers and building new ones.

If history is any guide, many of those facilities will end up in places like Lumpkin, population 2,741. The city’s small downtown has a courthouse, the police department, a couple of restaurants and a Dollar General. There’s no hotel and many of the nearest immigration lawyers are based 140 miles away in Atlanta.

“It’s been a strategic move by ICE to construct detention centers in rural areas,” said Amy Fischer, policy director for RAICES, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that supports on-site legal aid programs at two Texas facilities for detained families. “Even if the money is there, it’s very difficult to set up a pro bono network when you’re geographically three hours away from a big city.”

ICE currently oversees a network of about 200 facilities, jails, processing centers and former prisons where immigrants can be held, according to a government list from February.

Unlike criminal defendants, most immigrants in deportation proceedings are not entitled to government-appointed lawyers because their cases are deemed civil matters. Far from free legal help and with scant financial resources, the majority of detainees take their chances solo, facing off against federal lawyers before judges saddled with full dockets of cases. Frequently they must use interpreters.

An ICE spokesman denied that detention facilities are purposely opened in remote locations to limit attorney access. “Any kind of detention center, due to zoning and other factors, they are typically placed in the outskirts of a downtown area,” said spokesman Bryan Cox. “ICE is very supportive and very accommodating in terms of individuals who wish to have representation and ensuring that they have the adequate ability to do so.” At Lumpkin’s Stewart Detention Center, for instance, lawyers can schedule hourlong video teleconferences with detainees, Cox said.

But a ProPublica review found that access to free or low-cost legal counsel was limited at many centers. Government-funded orientation programs, which exist at a few dozen detention locations, typically include self-help workshops, group presentations on the immigration court process, brief one-on-one consultations and pro bono referrals, but they stop short of providing direct legal representation. And a list of pro bono legal service providers distributed by the courts includes many who don’t take the cases of detainees at all. Those that do can often only take a limited number — perhaps five to 10 cases at a time.

The legal help makes a difference. Across the country, 21 percent of detained immigrants who had lawyers won their deportation cases, the University of Pennsylvania Law Review study found, compared to just 2 percent of detainees without a lawyer. The study also found that 48 percent of detainees who had lawyers were released from detention while their cases were pending, compared to 7 percent of those who lacked lawyers.

Legal counsel can also speed up the process for those detainees with no viable claims to stay in the country, experts said. A discussion with a lawyer might prompt the detainee to cut his losses and opt for voluntary departure, avoiding a pointless legal fight and the taxpayer-funded costs of detention.

Lawmakers in some states, such as New York and California, have stepped in to help, pledging taxpayer money toward providing lawyers for immigrants who can’t afford their own. But such help only aids those detainees whose deportation cases are assigned to courts in those areas.

“What brings good results is access to family and access to counsel and access to evidence, and when you’re in a far off location without those things, the likelihood of ICE winning and the person being denied due process increase dramatically,” said Conor Gleason, an immigration attorney at The Bronx Defenders in New York.

Romniel, who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons, said he quickly could have lost everything without a lawyer.

A native of the Dominican Republic and a U.S. green card holder, Romniel, 53, was picked up by ICE agents during an early morning raid at his New York home in 2015. He was sent to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey.

“It was like a nightmare,” Romniel said in Spanish during an interview. “It’s very important to have a lawyer to defend yourself, because I didn’t know anything about immigration law. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”

Gleason, who was paid by a local government program to assist Romniel, tracked down 17 years of his tax records, compiled 21 letters of support from family and community members, coordinated a psychosocial evaluation by a social worker and submitted research on the harsh treatment of deportees sent back to the Dominican Republic. In court, Gleason argued that Romniel’s positive contributions to society –— his full-time employment as a maintenance and security person, his consistent payment of taxes, his family ties — outweighed the harm of a single drug conviction from several years earlier.

After more than four months in detention, an immigration judge ruled in Romniel’s favor, allowing him to return to his family in New York. In September, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Advocates and lawyers for immigrants worry such happy endings will become even more uncommon as detentions ramp up.

Saba Ahmed, a staff lawyer at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition in Washington, D.C., said a detainee she recently advised, a middle-aged man with a green card, was scooped up and sent to a Maryland detention facility in March because ICE agents wrongly believed he was a convicted robber — making him eligible for deportation.

When Ahmed met the man during a visit to the detention center about two weeks later, she realized that the government had meant to pick up someone else with the same name, and she helped secure his release.

“He didn’t have access to do an online search to prove it wasn’t him,” Ahmed said. “All he could say was, ‘It’s not me.’ You can’t just go on Google. You don’t have smartphones. There’s really no access.”

Immigrants, even those with the proper papers, can get locked up by ICE for a variety of reasons. Some are detained soon after crossing the border; others come to ICE’s attention after an arrest (whether or not they’re convicted of a crime). Federal agents have also swept up undocumented people in the proximity of raids targeting a specific person. Others have shown up for a scheduled check-in with ICE and are taken into custody instead.

Once in detention, even those with strong cases are at a disadvantage. Phone calls from inside the facilities can be expensive, lawyers said, limiting detainees’ contact with people who can help with their cases, such as community members for letters of support or officials who can send them corroborating records.

Many detention centers have law libraries with outdated materials. Without updated resources, detainees can’t research the current conditions in their countries of origin, which can be a crucial component of their defense if they fear violence or persecution there, lawyers said.

And even if they don’t speak English, all detainees without lawyers must compile their own legal documents and get them translated into English, a requirement for all paperwork submitted to immigration courts. Individuals must find translators on their own, attorneys said, and they sometimes rely on fellow detainees who know more English to help fill out forms.

Emory University School of Law adjunct professor Shana Tabak, who works with law students to represent immigrants facing deportation, said she typically puts together asylum packages of at least 200 pages containing documentary evidence, affidavits, testimony and expert opinions. “There’s no way a client who is detained and who does not have an attorney could put together that sort of evidence in order to advocate for him or herself and successfully win an asylum claim,” she said.

Perhaps as a result, 32 percent of detained immigrants with lawyers apply for asylum or other legal protections from deportation, whereas only 3 percent of detainees without lawyers do the same, according to the University of Pennsylvania Law Review study.

Ahmed, who has been working with detainees for 2 1/2 years, said some immigrants don’t realize that their life circumstances may qualify them for legal relief.

One man from El Salvador, she said, initially told her that he’d fled to the United States after gang members threatened to kill him if he didn’t give them money. After a few meetings, the man revealed he’d been thrown out of his family’s home because he was gay and had been repeatedly sexually abused by gang members.

“This is someone who had been persecuted and feared for his life, and would not have been able to avail himself of asylum if someone had not explained, ‘This is how asylum works,’ and then represented him,” Ahmed said.

After about five months in detention, she said, the man won his asylum case last October.

But even when detainees are linked up with attorneys, the geography of the detention system can make representing them challenging.

Arcenio, who asked that his last name not be used, was picked up in February and sent to Boone County Jail in Burlington, Kentucky, said Ted Farrell, his Louisville-based lawyer. He had a prior deportation order on his record and said he was fleeing death threats from Guatemalan gang members who opposed his political views. Farrell wanted to make sure that the 41-year-old would get the right kind of interview with the asylum office and that he would have time to prepare him for it over the phone.

But after five days in detention, Farrell said, Arcenio was sent to a facility in Brazil, Indiana. Farrell made an appointment to talk with him there, but on the day it was scheduled, he was transferred to a facility in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Farrell made a new appointment, but Arcenio was then moved to a different building in the same town. After several days of tracking, Farrell said, he finally got in touch.

Even then, Arcenio’s request for an interview was denied. ICE scheduled him to be deported to Guatemala and sent him to yet another detention facility, this one in Kankakee, Illinois, Farrell said.

After multiple phone calls, Farrell learned that immigration agents had requested the wrong type of interview with the asylum office. ICE acknowledged its mistake and took Arcenio off the manifest for a flight back to Guatemala, Farrell said. Arcenio passed his initial screening in March and is now waiting in detention to make his full case before an immigration judge later this month.

Meanwhile, he is still being held in Kankakee, a four-hour drive from Farrell’s office. They can only speak by phone with 24 hours advance notice, Farrell said, and sometimes they are asked to limit calls to around 15 minutes when there are several people waiting for the phone.

Farrell took on Arcenio’s case for a fee. “If he doesn’t win, I’m not going to go chase him down in Guatemala and make him pay,” Farrell said. “I’m sure there are attorneys out there who just won’t take a detained case or a potential detained case, because of the risk that they won’t ever get paid.”

Most free or low-cost legal help currently goes to detained mothers and children through such programs as the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project in Texas, immigration lawyers said. The project brings in about a dozen volunteer lawyers, law students and interpreters from around the country to serve one-week stints at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, about 75 miles from San Antonio. The volunteers help mothers who have fled sexual abuse, violence or other conditions in their home countries prepare for initial asylum interviews. They also represent families in bond hearings. A small group of staff rotates through Dilley to provide administrative support.

The program is able to advise nearly all of the families who pass through the detention center, according to Crystal Massey, one of the project’s coordinators. Another legal aid program that provides similar services exists 95 miles away at a family detention facility in Karnes City, Texas. Once families are released from either place, they must find their own lawyers to handle the rest of their asylum cases.

Since Trump’s vow to increase deportations, newer efforts to provide legal help to detainees have accelerated, but they remain unevenly distributed across the country.

Since 2013, New York City has provided lawyers for detained immigrants unable to afford them. This year, the program expanded to cover detainees with cases in immigration courts throughout New York. The state was the first in the country to guarantee representation for its indigent detained immigrant population, but last month Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city should not provide legal aid to immigrants with certain criminal records.

In December, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a $10 million fund — half from taxpayer dollars, half from foundations — to support immigrants facing deportation. But a city council committee voted in March to exclude most individuals with violent criminal convictions. A statewide effort, which promises $12 million toward legal support, passed the California Senate last month with a similar exception.

In San Francisco, nonprofit groups have secured initial private funding to take on 180 cases per year on behalf of detained immigrants, said Valerie Zukin, a lawyer with the Bar Association of San Francisco who is helping coordinate the new efforts. Starting in June, the city’s public defender office will support another three lawyers who will work exclusively on detained deportation defense cases.

And there is help coming to Lumpkin, too. A $1 million project led by the Southern Poverty Law Center started hosting volunteer lawyers last month to spend a week at a time representing eligible detainees at their bond hearings. Eventually volunteers will represent detained immigrants throughout their deportation cases, but even that effort will initially focus on detainees with the strongest cases, said Dan Werner, the attorney who is overseeing the program.

As for Rosenbluth, the North Carolina lawyer now lives in Lumpkin full time, save for the occasional weekend visit to his spouse back home. His house in Lumpkin is five minutes from the detention center and the mortgage costs about $95 a month, he said — cheaper than if he stayed for a night at a hotel.

“It takes a certain personality type to be willing to move to the middle of nowhere,” said Rosenbluth, who is currently working on about 15 detained cases. “To be in the courtroom, and reading the judge’s face and reading the trial attorney’s face, it makes all the difference.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Crime Lab Scandal Forces Prosecutors To Disavow Thousands Of Drug Convictions

Due to a scandal involving a former state chemist who admitted faking tests, nearly 20,000 Massachusetts criminal drug cases are to be dismissed. This will mark the largest number of drug cases thrown out in U.S. history because of one person. chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty in 2013 to meddling with evidence during her nine years working at a state crime lab in Boston. in an effort to make herself seem more efficient, Dookhan identified evidence as illegal narcotics without testing it. in January, The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered prosecutors across the state to dismiss the majority of convictions connected to that lab.

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
by Patrick G. Lee 

During her career as a Massachusetts lab chemist, Annie Dookhan has admitted to making up drug test results and tampering with samples, in the process helping send scores of people to prison. Her work may have touched some 24,000 cases.

On April 18, nearly five years after Dookhan’s confession, prosecutors submitted lists of about 21,587 tainted cases with flawed convictions that they have agreed to overturn. The state’s highest court must still formally dismiss the convictions.

Once that happens, many of the cleared defendants will be freed from the collateral consequences that can result from drug convictions, including loss of access to government benefits, public housing, driver’s licenses and federal financial aid for college. Convicted green card holders can also become eligible for deportation, and employers might deny someone a job due to a drug conviction on their record.

“The bad news is, it took a lot of time and litigation to get to this point. But the good news is, the courts are working really hard to make sure this relief is meaningful,” said Matthew Segal, the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, who helped represent some of the Dookhan defendants.

The state’s public defender agency has opened a telephone hotline (888-999-2881) to field questions that defendants may have about their convictions and whether they were dismissed. Prosecutors have until mid-May to send notice to those whose convictions were not overturned — in about 320 cases — so that those defendants can decide whether to request a new trial. Those cases involve what prosecutors considered to be the most serious offenders, and prosecutors believe that they have enough clean evidence to defend the original convictions.

The earliest Dookhan cases go back to 2003, which means that some individuals have been living with a flawed drug conviction for nearly a decade and a half. Lawyers for defendants, prosecutors and the state’s top court are also grappling with the question of how to find and contact defendants who may have been deported from the U.S. due to their now-overturned convictions, Segal said.

As a result, the effects of having an illegitimate drug conviction wiped away may not be immediately felt by many defendants.

“The longer that these tainted convictions remained on the books, the more power they’ve had and the more sway they’ve had over people’s lives,” said Luke Ryan, a criminal defense lawyer who has been following the Dookhan fallout and is also representing clients harmed by another Massachusetts drug lab scandal. “They’ve made choices around where they live, whether they can apply for public housing. They’ve foregone educational opportunities because they didn’t think they would be able to take advantage of them, they haven’t pursued job opportunities that maybe they could have gotten.”

The prosecutors’ move to dismiss thousands of cases follows a January decision from Massachusetts’ highest court, which required them to decide which Dookhan convictions they would maintain and which ones they would dismiss. For years, prosecutors opposed any wholesale review of Dookhan-involved cases and at one point argued that they had no duty to send notice to convicted defendants of the possibly tainted evidence.

In September, prosecutors finally mailed out thousands of notices, but the letters lacked key information and were accompanied by an inadequate Spanish translation, according to the court. As of November, fewer than 2,000 Dookhan defendants had sought or gained relief from their convictions.

The most affected cases — nearly 8,000 — came from Suffolk County, which includes Boston. All of the convictions were based on “reliable, admissible evidence” in addition to Dookhan’s tainted test results, and many of the defendants have criminal records that extend beyond the Dookhan cases, according to a statement from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.

The county’s mass dismissal “represents a good faith effort to meet the high court’s goal of winnowing the number of Dookhan defendants down to a manageable number,” the statement said.

The hundreds of defendants whose Dookhan convictions were not overturned could still decide to challenge them by requesting a new trial. If they cannot afford their own lawyer, the state public defender agency is required to provide them one for free.

“It will be a challenge. But it’s certainly a whole lot more manageable than the prospect of 20,000,” said Nancy Caplan, the attorney leading the agency’s Dookhan response. “It’s within the realm of possibility.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Child’s Play: Team Trump Rewrites Department Of Energy Website For Kids

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica. This story was originally co-published with The Atlantic.

Almost 20 years ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration had an idea: Make an educational website for children about energy sources and the science behind them.

In short order, the EIA created “Energy Kids,” which now features energy-themed sudoku and crossword puzzles, colorful pie charts, and a know-it-all mascot called Energy Ant. Images of a school bus parked between a coal plant and an oil rig adorn the bottom of the web page, along with drawings of wind turbines, solar panels, and an energy-efficient lightbulb.

During the Obama administration, Energy Kids even won multiple international awards for its content and design, as well as one from a digital publishing company that hailed it as “the best of the best in open and engaging government.”

The Trump administration, it seems, wasn’t altogether impressed with the site or its awards. In recent weeks, language on the website describing the environmental impacts of energy sources has been reworked, and two pie charts concerning the link between coal and greenhouse gas emissions have been removed altogether.

On a page dedicated to coal, the following sentences were deleted: “In the United States, most of the coal consumed is used as a fuel to generate electricity. Burning coal produces emissions that adversely affect the environment and human health.”

The two pie charts that were axed showed that although coal generated only 42 percent of total U.S. electricity in 2014, it created 76 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions linked to electricity generation.

“Impact” seems to have been a word the new administration disliked in particular.

The sentence “Reuse and recycling can also reduce coal’s environmental impact” was changed to “Reuse and recycling can also reduce the environmental effects of coal production and use.” “Underground mines have less of an impact on the environment compared to surface mines” became “Underground mines generally have a lesser effect on the landscape compared to surface mines.” “Impacts of coal mining” was changed to “Effects of coal mining,” and “Reducing the environmental impacts of coal use” became “Reducing the environmental effects of coal use.”

In a section on oil, the sentence, “There are environmental concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing” became “Hydraulic fracturing has some effects on the environment.”

On a separate kids’ page for greenhouse gases, a paragraph detailing the U.S. share of global carbon dioxide emissions was also deleted:

“The United States, with 4 percent of the world’s population, produced about 17 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2011, the most recent year for which global data are available. The United States has the world’s largest economy and meets 83 percent of its energy needs by burning fossil fuels.”

Another change involved shrinking a paragraph into footnote-sized font. The minimized text includes a description of methane as “a strong greenhouse gas” that results from coal mining. In the same paragraph, the sentence “Learn more about greenhouse gas emissions” — along with a link to the EIA’s page on “Where Greenhouse Gases Come From” — was deleted.

The changes on the website for kids were flagged by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a group including scientists, lawyers, and archivists that started tracking changes to federal websites and data after Trump’s election. ProPublica independently confirmed the timing and nature of the website changes by examining previous versions of the EIA website captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

“Control of the stream by which we educate the young, that’s how you control the future understanding of generations, of how the world works,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jamieson said that while it’s hardly surprising that information about energy has been shifted toward the pro-fossil fuel views of this administration, “You expect that in the explicit messaging of those talking about the policy, rather than in deleting things that we know.”

Since Trump took office, various government websites have been changed or taken down — such as climate change information on the Environmental Protection Agency’s site and an entire page dedicated to LGBT issues on whitehouse.gov.

But subtle changes to government pages directed at children had so far escaped notice. Last year, the kids’ page drew about 950,000 page views from more than 410,000 unique visitors, according to the EIA.

The EIA, which is part of the Department of Energy, bills itself as a “statistical and analytical agency” that distributes “independent and impartial energy information” for use in policymaking and in educating the public. According to the EIA’s website, the agency’s “data, analyses, and forecasts are independent of approval by any other officer or employee of the U.S. government.”

On the campaign trail, Trump appealed to key segments of working-class voters by promising to bring back coal jobs. The flagging industry has faced steep competition from cleaner and often cheaper natural gas, as well as renewable sources of energy.

Trump’s “America First” energy plan, as touted on the White House website, affirms the administration’s commitment “to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.” The plan also promises to tap into domestic reserves of oil, shale and natural gas, while at the same time rolling back “burdensome regulations” on the energy industry.

This month, President Trump signed off on the repeal of an Obama-era regulation that would have limited coal companies’ ability to dump potentially toxic mining debris into waterways. The Interior Department had estimated that the rule would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, but opponents of the rule said it would only further harm the already struggling coal industry.

“These websites are actually giving us clues as to what this administration is going to do, much more so than the very public media show that we are getting through the White House press secretary, through President Trump tweeting or through Kellyanne Conway on ‘Meet the Press,’” said Jennifer Wingard, an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston. “It is intentional, these shifts in words are meaningful, and it’s smart to pay attention to them.”

The EIA’s Office of Communications manages the Energy Kids page and aims to update the content with the most recent data, according to Jonathan Cogan, a spokesman for the agency. The office also tries to review all of the pages at least once a year, he said.

“If you’ve seen any changes to it, it’s just part of the ongoing update process,” Cogan said. “When a trend is up in the previous years, and then all of a sudden there’s a downturn, you have to change the wording in the sentence to make the sentence fit the numbers. That’s the only type of thing we would have been doing here.”

However, many of the changes since Trump’s inauguration involve wholesale deletions of older data, as opposed to updates, as well as language edits that seem unrelated to changing trends. When asked about these specific alterations to the Energy Kids webpages, Cogan said that “for the most part, the information that you talk about being deleted is still there, either in a different place or worded slightly differently.”

“I really don’t see a lot there,” he said.

Cogan emphasized that the EIA is a “policy-neutral statistical agency” that is not required to submit its analyses for approval by any part of the executive branch. “We’re not in the position that other agencies might be in,” he said.