Christopher, a young Congolese asylum seeker, was detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center, which is a prison in rural New Mexico operated by CoreCivic. He endured health issues, experienced isolation because he doesn’t speak a commonly spoken language, struggled to find a lawyer, and had his asylum application denied by an immigration judge.
As described in a report [PDF] from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) on routine violations of rights to counsel, which many suffer, it recounts, “At Christopher’s first court hearing, the judge told him that ‘one of your most important rights is the right to have an attorney or other representative speak on your behalf.’ Christopher replied (through an interpreter): ‘So now, right here, I’m in the jail. I’m in detention. I don’t know as an asylum [sic], I don’t know how things work here. In asylum, I have to stay in the jail. How am I going to get that attorney if I’m here?'”
“When the judge asked him about the list of free legal service providers he had received from [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], he replied, ‘Okay, this list here, when you call people, they don’t answer. They don’t pick up the phone. A lot of people are calling them but nobody is picking up their phones.'”
The report adds, “Over the course of Christopher’s immigration hearings, he described to the judge his ongoing health problems and his confusion as to how to complete basic tasks necessary to his self-representation, such as filling out the I-589 asylum application form.”
“At one point Christopher pled, ‘I’m here as a prisoner. I’m here, I’m arrested as a criminal. And when I’m not – I don’t understand anything, Madam.'”
The immigration judge denied asylum, siding with the ICE prosecutor, who argued Christopher was unable to present evidence that his life was in danger in his home country. That was due to the fact that he was unable to communicate with anyone that could help him obtain legal representation.
NIJC is representing Christopher in his appeal, and he is one of many individuals at Cibola, who struggle to find lawyers to help them win asylum or some other legal status to remain in the United States.
The Cibola prison is located about 90 minutes from Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to NIJC, there are 21 immigration lawyers in New Mexico and Texas. They are only capable of providing legal services to “42 immigrants detained at the Cibola prison, meaning counsel is available to no more than six percent of the 689 immigrants,” which the Homeland Security Department (DHS) said are held at the facility (as of April 2017).
This facility held federal inmates for 16 years. CoreCivic, the private prison contractor once known as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), had a contract with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), but in July 2016, as NIJC’s report recounts, the contract was terminated “after investigations revealed a history of unexplained deaths and rampant medical negligence at the facility.”
No less than three months later, ICE and Cibola County inked a contract so the facility remained open as a center for detained immigrants.
“The hurdles immigrants at Cibola face when they try to find a lawyer are not an anomaly. They are the norm,” declared Heidi Altman, who is NIJC’s director of policy and the author of the report. “DHS knows that jailing people far from their loved ones and far from lawyers strips them of their ability to effectively defend against deportation. Building more prisons to detain more immigrants in isolated locations is central to the administration’s all-out attack on immigrant communities in the United States.”
Homeland Security has a unit for transgender women at the Cibola facility. NIJC notes, “Transgender immigrants are likely to be seeking asylum based on transphobic violence they have already faced or that they fear, and because of such histories are likely to suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions. Transgender women also are more likely to require specialized medical care including hormone replacement therapy and HIV treatment.“
However, “Cibola prison’s remoteness from legal advocates and its history of medical negligence are particularly alarming in light of these additional vulnerabilities.”
Transgender women in the facility face a great risk of mental health issues. They are terribly frustrated with how the system functions to their detriment. “One transgender woman at Cibola, represented by NIJC in a federal court appeal, has frequently remarked that it would be better to suffer the fast death that awaits her in Honduras than to suffer the slow death of immigration detention.”
Previously, NIJC documented in 2010 how immigrants were isolated in the detention system. It railed against a “due process crisis” that left “80 percent of detained immigrants” in facilities, which severely lacked resources from legal aid organizations. It warned against a system where one full-time nonprofit attorney must represent at least 100 immigrants in order to even attempt to keep pace with ICE’s agenda. Recommendations were offered to DHS and the Justice Department on how to address this problem, but none of those recommendations were adopted.
Cibola County Correctional Center, as Seth Freed Wessler reported in 2016, had 1,100 beds for “non-citizens convicted of crimes.” Its medical unit was “chronically understaffed and prisoners were denied basic medical screening.”
“The problems went uncorrected for years. At least three prisoners died in the facility in the wake of shoddy medical care,” Wessler added.
President Donald Trump’s administration seems intent to replicate the model at Cibola in other parts of the country. Homeland Security is likely to build new facilities in Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, and southern Texas. They would house numerous detainees as the administration ramps up its attacks on refugees, asylum seekers, or undocumented immigrants. Most would find it as difficult as Christopher to find a lawyer, who could defend their due process rights and help them avert deportation, but that appears to be acceptable to Trump’s administration.