According to an exclusive American Civil Liberties Union report, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is limiting immigrants’ access to lawyers in its detention centers, making them more vulnerable to longer detention and even deportation.

According to the report, immigrants detained in civil cases face “monumental barriers in finding and communicating with attorneys,” rendering their right to legal representation “essentially meaningless.”

“No Fighting Chance: ICE’s Denial of Access to Counsel in U.S. Immigration Detention Centers,” an ACLU study, discovered barriers to effective legal representation. Inadequate access to phone and video conference lines; a lack of email and other electronic messaging; barriers to in-person attorney visits; and delayed mail are among them.

The cost of preventing contact between lawyers and immigrants with the right to representation in civil immigration proceedings, according to Aditi Shah, co-author of the report with ACLU colleague Eunice Cho, is high.

“Barriers to access to counsel increase the likelihood of detention and deportation, which not only violates detained immigrants’ rights but also increases the risk that they will suffer serious, avoidable injuries or even death while detained or after deportation,” Shah said.

People have the right to legal representation in civil immigration proceedings, but they must pay for it or find a lawyer who will perform the service for free because the government does not pay for it. According to the report, nearly four out of every five detained immigrants do not have access to counsel.

According to a study cited in the report, immigrants who have legal representation are 10 times more likely to win their civil cases.

Belor Mbema Mapudi Ngoma, who is in civil immigrant detention at the Krome North Service Processing Center in Florida and has been there since July 2020, is attempting to reopen a case in which he was ordered deported in October, but he is having difficulty finding legal organizations willing to provide free services.

Mapudi Ngoma relies on a list of phone numbers for legal services posted at the detention center, but he claims that some of the numbers aren’t working and that he can’t leave messages with some organizations because they require push-button access to voicemail or other services that aren’t available through the detention center phone.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo native, who is representing himself in his immigration case, cannot afford to pay a lawyer and tries to call every day to find one who offers pro bono services from the options listed at the center, as do many of those detained.

“I believe ICE should do a better job of getting us access to a lawyer,” Mapudi Ngoma said in a recorded and monitored phone call on Wednesday. He described himself as “anxious, stressed, and depressed,” and he misses his two American-born children, the mother of whom died in 2017.

The ACLU report, which the organization claims is the first comprehensive review of legal access for detained immigrants, was conducted in late 2021 and examines legal access at 173 of 192 ICE facilities across the country. It also contains survey responses from 89 immigration lawyers and legal representatives about their experiences representing clients in 58 detention facilities.

According to Naveen Flores-Dixit, a lawyer with American Gateways, a non-profit that provides legal services to Texas’ low-income immigrant community, the lack of privacy and confidentiality for attorney-client phone conversations is a problem. He cited the case of a client whose immigration case included a claim that he would be threatened in his home country by MS-13, an international gang.

Similarly, LGBTQ clients who fear for their safety in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are hesitant to discuss details that may be relevant to a legal case in public.

The report’s top recommendation, which is supported by the lawyers interviewed, is that immigrants awaiting adjudication of asylum claims, deportation efforts, and other civil proceedings be placed under the supervision of community-based social service programs rather than detention centers, making it easier for them to obtain effective legal representation.