A group of nonprofits and immigrant-rights organizations is calling on congressional members to halt any plans for new or expanded immigration detention facilities in the Midwest, including St. Paul.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has issued a request for information to try identifying possible sites to "hold criminal aliens and other immigration violators," according to the request.
The Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, the Immigrant Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union were among several organizations that signed a letter to ICE objecting to the plans. They say people in detention are already underrepresented and deprived of legal counsel and due process.
"Expanding detention capacity is only going to further erode people's access to lawyers," said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of the Advocates for Human Rights. "There is just not enough help out there for people, and these are critical, life-changing decisions people are being forced to make in front of a judge, or even face to face with an immigration officer."
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According to the letter, only 21 percent of detained immigrants in Minnesota have representation.
McKenzie said the groups are hoping lawmakers will put the brakes on the funding that ICE could use to increase its detention enforcement. She said it's more crucial to come up with policies that "serve the American interests in immigration and protect the human rights of the people who are facing that system."
Shawn Neudauer, a spokesperson for ICE office in Minnesota, said the agency doesn't comment on a pending contracting process and couldn't explain the intent of this request for information.
He added, though, that detainees in removal proceedings "can always retain counsel at their own expense" and that there are plenty of available pro bono programs.
"How does adding more beds erode anything?" Neudauer added. "There are literally scores of attorneys. This seems a pretty vague allegation."