An irony in representing aliens before the immigration bureaus, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is that the bureau that is the least hard-nosed and enforcement oriented, USCIS, at least in San Diego, is also the one hardest for an attorney practicing immigration law to make meaningful contact with. Even the Department of State, which handles overseas visa issuance and has in the past been the hardest to have meaningful communication with, has rather efficient email communication with its customers through its National Visa Center (NVC). Meaningful communication with the Department of State becomes much more varied from post to post once a case is shipped overseas to a consulate.
Certainly, USCIS has its Infopass system for customer service, but as I have recently blogged about, here and here, while Infopass gives all the promise of meaningful communication, the results of the communication are very often poor. In my recent attempts at resolution of three nettlesome cases with Infopass, I have experienced only disappointment. In one case, a promise for fingerprinting of a client is still unfulfilled. In another, the scheduling of a client for an interview has still not happened. And in a third, the adjudication of a long-pending request for action has not been accomplished. In all three cases, I was given assurances that they would be dealt with imminently.
In contrast, an email to the NVC last week was responded to the next day with a favorable result. As for ICE, ICE’s chief counsel have become more and more accessible. While the attorneys are not service providers to aliens and stand in an adversarial relationship to them, as opposed to USCIS which considers aliens customers, one can speak to an ICE chief counsel and discuss issues in a case. Even CBP has a community liaison who one can expect meaningful replies to through email. Emailing USCIS’s attorney, at least in San Diego, will result in a rebuff that all dealings must go through the ineffective Infopass system, where the specific issues in a case are either lost in translation to higher ups or simply lost before reaching higher ups.
There is an exception to this observation about effective communication with ICE – contacting Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers in Los Angeles. Like searching for the Holy Grail, communicating with them proved to be a lost cause. Here is what happened to me last week. A client was granted a bond by an immigration judge. He was detained at an ICE contracted facility in Orange County, a suburban county directly south of Los Angeles County. An immigration judge in downtown Los Angeles set the bond. The next Monday the family went to pay the bond. First, the office taking the bond would not accept the bond because the file was not available and the family had to go back the next day. The next day, Tuesday, the people taking the bond told the family that there was no bond set and they would have to come back. This, despite the family’s having a bond order from the immigration judge which they showed to the clerks. The family had to return Wednesday. On Wednesday, the family again was told there was no bond set. The family called me and told me that ICE said there was no bond set and the client could not be released.
Having given ICE three days to perform the magical act of accepting a bond and releasing an alien, I decided to try to call ICE ERO and see what was going on. I started by going to the ERO website and finding the number for their Orange County office. I called that number which, after a few automatic transfers, no one answered – just some filled up mail boxes which I could not leave messages on. I then called the Los Angeles downtown main number and got to an automated answering system which directed me to press “3” for detained aliens. When I pressed “3” I was informed that nothing was set up. Pressing the number to speak to an attendant, got a constant announcement that the line for “Rita” was busy. I then decided to see if I could get to ICE through calling the local detention facility where the client was. One local facility number told me that I had called the county jail and they had no information on ICE detainees and had no number to reach them. Another number was also the county jail and they had an ICE number. That number led to me being told an ICE officer who answered the client was at another facility. That ICE officer gave me the number to the other facility which ended up being the same number as the Orange County office that was the dead end earlier. I found the other facility online, but all the numbers were for county jail officials. One of those numbers provided me with a receptionist that gave me the name of an officer, Figueroa, but no direct number. I left a message after calling the Orange County ICE office and searching for Figueroa on the automated directory. I hoped there was just one Figueroa working for ICE in Orange County and this Figueroa would call me back. She did not.
It was then time to change gears. I called the Office of Chief Counsel for ICE in Los Angeles. After all, it is often most appropriate for attorneys to speak to attorneys. In fact, in general, if an attorney knows someone is represented, he or she is forbidden to contact the person directly. I called the chief counsel in Los Angeles and through their automated directory, tried to call the attorney who represented ICE at the bond hearing. His name did not come up, so I ended up leaving a message for the “duty attorney.” I also contacted the family and asked if they happened to have gotten any phone numbers for people they were speaking with in downtown Los Angeles. They did! I called the number which was apparently for a woman who takes the bond money. She explained that they were waiting for officers to approve accepting the bond money. She could provide no numbers for actual officers but said she would call and leave my information. Later in the day, I got a call from the duty attorney who essentially told me the same thing. By the end of the day, the client was still not released.
From speaking with the duty officer and the woman who takes bond money, I gleaned that before ICE will accept payment and release an alien, immigration officers had to make their own determination about release on bond. This despite an immigration judge, with the participation of ICE’s own attorney, already having made the custody determination. Without feedback from the officers, the people taking the bond would not take it.
Finally, on Thursday, the client was released. A simple errand – to pay the bond set a week before – took four days to accomplish. An adjudicatory scheme for bond determination involving an immigration judge and a government attorney was superseded by ICE officers’ independent screening and bureaucratic delays. A person remained in custody for three or four extra days and a family inconvenienced for four days instead of one. (How would you like to miss four days of work to simply pay a bond?) I never was able to reach anyone actually involved in actual decision making in the process. Such was my experience trying to deal with detention officers in the Los Angeles district. Posted September 4, 2011.