SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Attorney Kim Hunter received a letter earlier this month from immigration authorities telling her she'd been banned from a family detention center in South Texas for being "belligerent" in demanding the release of her clients one late July night.
Andrew Free learned Aug. 3 that he'd also been banished from the country's largest such facility after the attorney marched into a courtroom trailer 10 days before to ask why U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were meeting with his clients without his knowledge.
ICE says the two violated visitation standards, but a coalition of immigration attorneys says the bans are unprecedented and is fighting to rescind them as part of its ongoing effort to improve access to the immigrant mothers and their children who are in the U.S. without legal permission and being held at the facility.
"I have never encountered the constant unrelenting drum beat of ways to interfere with access," said Hunter, who arrived in late July from St. Paul, Minnesota, to perform pro bono work.
She is one of about 500 lawyers from around the country who have volunteered a week at a time at the 50-acre, 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, which currently holds some 1,000 immigrants. The center has faced intense political and legal opposition after the U.S. government opened it and another Texas center in response to tens of thousands of Central American mothers and children who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last year. On Friday, a federal judge ordered the rapid release of the children, along with their mothers when possible — something lawyers for Homeland Security had been fighting and could appeal.
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The volunteer attorneys say their representation is vital in helping the women pass interviews that are the first hurdle in seeking asylum. Stephen Manning, an attorney involved in the pro-bono projects, says that of the 5,000 immigrants who've had representation, he's seen only 10 denials.
But the lawyers say immigration authorities are increasingly hindering their ability to represent clients. They gave examples such as citing security concerns as a way to deny access to counsel, limiting access to courtrooms, keeping out psychologists who've received clearance and sudden rule changes, such as not allowing cellphones to be left in lockers, meaning the lawyers must keep the phones locked away in hot cars.
ICE officials did not respond to all of the lawyers' allegations, but said those psychologists had their access revoked because they were "conducting an unauthorized survey."
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the agency is in "frequent communication" with lawyers for the immigrants, responds to their concerns and allows them access not given at other ICE facilities because of the "sensitive and unique nature of detaining families."
But visitation privileges can be suspended when standards are violated. ICE said Free and Hunter broke rules outlined in a handbook, prompting the actions that the lawyers say are the first involving family detention access.
The agency alleges Free "physically inserted" himself between federal officers and detainees, and, on another occasion, placed his hands on an officer as she tried to walk away.
Free, from Nashville, Tennessee, says the ban is retaliatory. Prior to his ban, he said, he called out ICE officials for summoning mothers into courtrooms with no judges or lawyers present and telling them they would be released with ankle monitors regardless of whether they intended to pay their bonds.
Hunter says she was banned after arguing with ICE officials about why her clients hadn't been released from the facility after the officials had been given several hours' notice. Though the five mothers Hunter represented and their six children were finally released at 11 p.m., she stayed to advocate for a family who had driven from Waco that afternoon and were waiting for their relatives, who never walked free that night
ICE alleges Hunter also entered a closed visitation area unescorted, interfered with a shift briefing and "became belligerent" in demanding releases of her clients.
Both attorneys say they will fight to regain access, and they are being backed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a nonprofit organization leading the pro bono project at Dilley.
Crystal Williams, who just stepped down as the association's executive director, said that if rules were broken, they'd been "made up then and there."
"You can't just ban attorneys," she said, "for doing their jobs."