February 06, 2016

Lawyers observe detention conditions at U.S.–Mexico border

In recognition of the 17th anniversary of the Immigration Justice Project –– the American Bar Association’s pro bono legal services provider for detained immigrants in removal proceedings in San Diego—a  delegation of members from the ABA Commission on Immigration toured the United States–Mexico border Feb. 4, to witness firsthand the detention conditions of immigrants detained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and observe the scope of operations governing the protection of American borders. 

From Left to Right: Mary Meg McCarthy, Wendy Wayne, Doreen Dodson, Meredith Linsky, Maureen Ketler Schad, Angie Junck, Manasi Raveedran, Lea Snipes, Kristi Gaines


Organized by the IJP, the delegation visited the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Otay Mesa Detention Center and joined a ride-along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents stationed at the U.S.-Mexico Border in southern California.

At the Otay Mesa Detention Center, immigration enforcement representatives and the group of lawyers discussed access to legal representation, court proceedings and the provisions to safely hold vulnerable immigrants such mentally ill detainees and transgender individuals.

“Civil immigration detention is no different than criminal detention,” said Wendy Wayne, an expert on immigration consequences of criminal conduct, who serves as the director of the Immigration Impact Unit at the Massachusetts public defender’s office.

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With a capacity for 2,500 immigrant detainees, the Otay Mesa Detention Center holds a mixed-sex adult population of criminal offenders under the custody of U.S. Marshals Service awaiting deportation; as well as men and women under the custody of ICE who have been captured by border patrol agents for unlawful entry to the U.S. or asylum-seekers who have surrendered to authorities at the San Isidro Port of Entry.

According to Otay Mesa officials, IJP’s legal assistance to detainees is of great help to immigration authorities alike, especially in assisting with the detainee population with mental illness.

IJP provides daily legal orientation presentations to adult detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center; and serves as a “Friend of the Court” at the immigration court in San Diego, where staffers make recommendations to immigration judges and trial attorneys when they believe a detainee in immigration proceedings may suffer from mental health issues.

The delegation expressed concern for the facility’s provisions to hold transgender individuals seeking asylum, as they recalled the scene of a transgender woman going through a suitcase of her personal belongings while a male intake officer at the detention facility supervised and decided which items would be confiscated and those she could keep.

“Imagining what she was probably about to face, for a facility often not equipped to handle hostility  against transgender individuals, and by  putting them in situations that they find uncomfortable,” said Maureen Ketler Schad, pro bono Counsel at Chadbourne & Parke LLP.

According to Otay Mesa authorities, transgender women with male reproductive organs get placed with male detainees.

“You just wonder: Will there be an attorney to represent her?” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago and chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration. “[Transgender individuals] are so vulnerable. Not only in terms of their immigration case, but also on how they’ll be treated.”

To conclude the one-day activity at the border, commission members joined a ride-along with border patrol agents to tour the fence infrastructure built more than a decade ago along a 14-mile-stretch in San Diego that borders Tijuana, Mexico, westward into the Pacific Ocean.

During the tour, border patrol agents and the immigration legal experts discussed enforcement operations of unlawful entries into the United States, criminal activities such as smuggling and drug trafficking, community relations programs and shared perspectives about the treatment of asylum-seeking immigrants.

“It was my first time hearing the perspective of border patrol agents,” said Ketler Schad. “My impressions of border patrol agents had always been those impressions passed on to me by my clients.”

The tour included a visit to Friendship Park–– a binational park at the U.S.-Mexico border, next to the Pacific Ocean––the only place in the nation where a small crowd gathers every Saturday at the American section of the fence, as border patrol officers open a gate to allow visitors to physically see and speak to those on the other side, without the aid of electronics — or the risk of deportation.

Border patrol agents in San Diego said a very active community relations program has made a difference on both sides of the border and has demonstrated the importance of community engagement and outreach in securing U.S. borders.