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ICE detainees held in rural areas, far from legal assistance

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is currently detaining more than 51,000 people. But with detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border at capacity, more than half of those detainees are being held in remote prisons and jails, often far from legal representation. In the first of a two-part series, Joanne Elgart Jennings reports from Louisiana in partnership with The New Orleans Advocate.

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  • Alison Stewart:

    On Tuesday, a Cuban seeking asylum in the U.S., who had been in ICE custody in Louisiana for months, died by an apparent suicide. Roylan Hernandez-Diaz had been on a hunger strike and had claimed abuse in prison.

    Louisiana has become a center of America's migrant detainee effort, housing almost 8,000 of the more than 51,000 people currently behind bars. Many of them are held in remote prisons and jails, far from legal representation.

    Reporting in cooperation with the New Orleans Advocate and ITVS, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart-Jennings has the story, the first in our two-part report.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    When attorney Homero Lopez needs to meet in person with clients held in immigration detention, he has to make long drives from his home in New Orleans.

  • Homero Lopez:

    If you do a day trip, you're talking about six to eight hours of drive, not including the time that you're physically there.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    His non-profit, Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy, provides free legal representation for migrants detained in Louisiana. And with more and more detention centers being opened in rural areas, he spends a lot of time in his car.

  • Homero Lopez:

    There's a limited amount of people who are doing the detained cases in Louisiana because it is, they are so far, so rural, so difficult to get to and to handle.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    Most of Lopez's clients are at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center. It's 180 miles northwest of New Orleans and holds up to 1,094 detainees. Though it's a federal facility, it's run and staffed by GEO Group, a private prison company that contracts with the US government. GEO declined our request to tour the detention center, but we were permitted to enter the visitation area and meet some of Lopez's clients. Thirty-two-year-old Cristian De Leon has been in ICE custody for 14 months. A native of Guatemala, DeLeon came to the U.S. on a work visa, which has since expired. He was living in Alabama with his fiancé and their three children and working in construction.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    How did you end up here in ICE detention in Louisiana?

  • Cristian De Leon:

    I had a small car accident and the police came to help me and then they arrested me.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    DeLeon was charged with driving under the influence. He says when his fiancé came to pay his bond, the police wouldn't let her.

  • Cristian De Leon:

    They said that ICE was already coming for me.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    ICE issued a deportation order, which DeLeon is appealing. Meanwhile, he married his fiancé, an American citizen, in a brief prison ceremony. He's now applying for a green card as her spouse. DeLeon is not typical of Lopez's clients. Most have applied for asylum because they feared for their lives in their home country. Like 36-year-old Jamal Jamal, who came to the U.S. from Pakistan. He says he had fallen in love with a woman whose family had arranged a marriage for her with another man. When the woman told her family she wanted to marry Jamal instead, they killed her. A tribal council then ordered Jamal's execution, so he fled the country.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    What do you think will happen if you are deported back to Pakistan?

  • Jamal Jamal:

    They might kill me.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    On arrival in the U.S., he asked for asylum. He's been in ICE detention for 11 months as his case makes its way through immigration court. Katie Schwartzmann is Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana. She says that migrants like Jamal, who enter the U.S. legally seeking asylum, and demonstrate a "credible fear" of returning to their home country, should be released on bond.

  • Katie Schwartzmann:

    They're entitled to consideration for something that our immigration law calls "humanitarian parole," which means the right to remain out in the community in the United States as ICE considers whether the grant of asylum is appropriate.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    ICE's regional office in New Orleans is responsible for five southern states, including Louisiana. As recently as 2016, under the Obama administration, it approved parole for almost 76% of asylum cases. Under the Trump Administration, that number has plunged to 1.5%. The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security. They allege that ICE's New Orleans office is categorically denying parole to asylum seekers in "a violation of DHS's own directive and guidelines." A federal judge agreed, noting in September that the number of parole approvals had dropped to zero percent in 2019. He ruled that DHS must consider granting parole to detainees seeking asylum. The government is appealing the ruling. ICE officials say parole is designed to be narrowly applied. Bryan Cox is acting press secretary.

  • Bryan Cox:

    The reality is that if people could show up at the border, make a claim, and be released into the interior of the united states, not everyone will then appear in court. And so detention in some instances is a necessary use of resources to ensure that persons do in fact appear in court.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    But over the past year, ICE has held more migrants in detention than ever before. And many are here in Louisiana. Last year there were two prisons, holding about 2,500 ICE detainees. Now, there are eleven holding almost 9,000 people. Detained migrants are less likely to win asylum than those who await trial on the outside. Homero Lopez's clients are among the lucky few who have legal representation.

  • Homero Lopez:

    Buenos dias, Dixan. Como estas?

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    On this day, Lopez is meeting with Dixan Hernandez Naranjo via video conference. Not all detention centers allow the practice. They are trying to prepare for the tough questioning Hernandez will face in an asylum hearing the next day.

  • Homero Lopez:

    Le mentiste a ICE?

  • Dixan Hernandez Naranjo:

    No.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    In his native Cuba, Hernandez was a tour guide. He says government officials accused him of speaking unpatriotically to tourists, and jailed him repeatedly for what he calls "thought crimes." While in ICE detention at Pine Prairie, Hernandez participated in a hunger strike. He says he and his fellow protesters were being unfairly incarcerated.

  • Dixan Hernandez Naranjo:

    We are not criminals. We just simply want to fight for our rights, like anybody who comes to seek asylum.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    He was placed in solitary confinement for his participation and missed a meeting with Lopez. Now, they are having one last session before the hearing. The next morning, Lopez makes a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Oakdale, a small town in central Louisiana, which is mostly comprised of a strip of chain stores. Tucked inside a federal correctional complex is the nondescript Oakdale Immigration Court. It handles all cases for migrants detained at Pine Prairie. Lopez is here to present Hernandez's asylum case. He's hopeful, but he knows the odds are not in his client's favor.

  • Homero Lopez:

    Our judges have a very low approval rate for relief for asylum in particular. And um, we just don't see a lot of wins unfortunately.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    From 2013 to 2018, judges at this court denied asylum nearly 90 percent of the time. But Lopez and his law partner Al Page have beaten the odds lately. They won five out of eight asylum cases while we were in Louisiana. Among the wins: Dixan Herndandez Naranjo. We caught up with him at the bus station in New Orleans shortly after he was released from detention. Hernandez says he's grateful to be out in what he calls "a country with freedom." But he says the treatment he received in detention, especially in solitary confinement, was not what he expected in the United States.

  • Dixan Hernandez Naranjo:

    The same experience when I've been in the hole was like the same thing when I'm in the hole in cuba. Maybe more dangerous than Cuba.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    Jamal Jamal and Cristian DeLeon remain in ICE detention. A judge recently denied Jamal's application for asylum. He decided to appeal the decision rather than be deported immediately.

  • Joanne Elgart Jennings:

    DeLeon has fallen ill and is being tested for a heart condition.

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