Situated about 15 miles outside of the small town of Winnfield, Louisiana lies the Winn Correctional Center - DHS’s newest and latest detention facility in Louisiana. Actually, this facility does not belong to DHS at all, but rather the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Just a few short months ago this facility housed approximately one thousand six hundred state inmates but ever since the United States Department of Homeland Security entered into a contract with the state of Louisiana for immigrant detainees to be housed at this facility, the Louisiana Department of Corrections has quickly moved these 1,600 inmates to other facilities across the state of Louisiana and replaced each and every one of them with DHS immigrant detainees. As of the time this article was published, the facility has almost maxed out its capacity with immigrant detainees.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (the immigration court system) has seriously undermined the due process rights of immigrants detained at this facility by holding many immigrants at this facility for months at a time before they are even scheduled to appear for their very first master calendar hearing. For example, Louisiana immigration attorneys at Liberty Law Group have had one client housed at the Winn Correctional Center for approximately four months before their client was required to appear for his very first master calendar hearing. This particular individual is expected to remain at the Winn Correctional Center for at least another two months before a federal immigration judge will have an opportunity to hear the merits of his asylum claim.
In addition to the length of time these individuals have to wait for their first hearing, the manner in which these hearings are conducted also seriously undermines these individuals’ due process rights. You see, not one of these immigrants will ever get to personally sit in front of an immigration judge or government ICE attorney to plead their case as the immigration judges are located almost 1,000 miles away in Chaparral, New Mexico and the government prosecutors are located in El Paso, Texas. This requires the immigration judge to make credibility determinations via video telephone conference – an impossible task.
These days due process is not high on DHS’s priority list. It’s all about efficiency and sending as many asylum seekers home as quickly as possible while pretending to uphold the rule of law. Even though many of the individuals housed at this facility are eligible for bond, the vast majority of bond applications will be categorically denied because the immigration judges will simply deem these individuals as a “flight risk” if they are released, irrespective of whether the judge could issue a bond high enough to force these individuals to appear for all scheduled immigration hearings.
You can’t really blame the state of Louisiana for signing up for this. After all, they are making approximately $49 more per day, per individual than they were making with DOC inmates. This figure adds up to a whopping $28,616,000 per year. With the state of Louisiana always having serious deficit issues within its own government, it only makes sense for it to do everything it can to bring more money into the fold, but it does so at the expense of each and every one of the immigrant detainees housed at the Winn Correctional Center.
Another issue effecting the due process rights of these immigrant detainees is the simple fact that there are very few immigration attorneys within the area to assist them. Attorneys at Liberty Law Group and a handful of other individuals have offices in Alexandria, Louisiana, but even that still requires a drive of an hour and fifteen minutes to reach this facility. Even though the immigration judges usually allow for attorney appearance by telephone conference, this only further undermines the process as it is very difficult for an attorney to give his client 100% commitment if the attorney appears for the hearing by telephone.
Sadly, there are many problems but very few answers. With so many individuals trying to enter the country to apply for asylum, the government almost has no choice to but to set up an inefficiently run immigration court system like the one in the Winn Correctional Center. A first step would be for the immigration judges across the country to start treating individuals housed at facilities like this one as people and not simply as people to be process on a factory production line.
So many asylum seekers who enter the country and get placed in these facilities have an amazing story to tell – a beautiful but sad journey that most often has a tragic ending. If we can find it within ourselves to listen to their stories and understand where they are coming from and what they are running from, maybe…just maybe we can regain the humanity that our nation lost years ago.
Christopher Kinnison, the author of this article, is the owner of Liberty Law Group, LLC – a Louisiana full service immigration firm that specializes in handling detained cases at detention centers all throughout the state of Louisiana, including the ICE detention center at the Winn Correctional Center.