Many Americans are worried about the fate of immigrants under President-elect Donald Trump. However, thousands of lawful permanent residents and undocumented immigrants are rounded up each day under the current administration and locked up in detention centers across the country. Once there, they’re lucky if they can afford a phone call home or to legal counsel as they fight deportation cases. 

There are at least 440,000 immigrants held annually in America’s sprawling immigrant detention system of over 200 facilities. Those being held, sometimes without any criminal record or charges, lack fundamental access to affordable phone calls and other resources. Recent court cases at the state level have determined immigrant detention centers are sorely lacking in their ability to provide detainees with adequate living conditions, as well as the ability to make phone calls to family and counsel while facing deportation hearings. 

With undocumented immigrant populations in detention centers expected to soar under President-elect Donald Trump’s next administration, activists say the need for immediate, nationwide reform is more crucial than ever to provide immigrants with the tools they’ll need to coordinate and fight their cases without going bankrupt. Trump has vowed to crackdown on illegal immigration and immediately deport 3 million people.

"Our goal is to see a deduction in the amount of people we lock up, and better conditions and oversight for the centers they’re in," said Candice Francis, communications director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "We’re very concerned, based on the promises of Donald Trump as a candidate and what we’re hearing about what the plans are for his first hundred days to deport three million people, that there will be a rise in detention center populations and things like phone call prices."

RTX2L1B0 (1) Protesters from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee gathered in front of where President Barack Obama was playing golf on his vacation in Edgartown, Massachusetts, Aug. 15, 2016. The protesters are calling for the release of immigrant women on a hunger strike at the Berks County, Pennsylvania, migrant family detention center. Photo: Reuters

Private prisons, county jails and immigrant detention centers rely on the prison telephone industry, a group of private companies similar to Verizon and T-Mobile but catering specifically to correctional facilities and detention centers. Those companies typically offer a profit to the facilities they operate in, allowing for detention centers to make money every time an immigrant calls pro-bono legal counsel, family members or other support networks while facing deportation hearings. 

Immigrants held in detention centers are not always granted a bond hearing in front of a judge. They can spend months, or even years, waiting for a decision from a judge regarding their status. 

Immigrants and activists describe a slew of issues with placing phone calls in detention centers, from being unable to leave voicemails with legal offices and not having a way of receiving messages from the outside. One immigrant, a 60-year-old Army veteran who was eventually deported after being held 18 months in a detention center for a petty crime he already served time for, previously described being unable to pay for phone calls with family as calls cost nearly $2 per minute in an interview with International Business Times. 

"Because of a lack of regulation, there’s no pressure for centers to make telephone calls affordable," said Carl Takei, staff attorney with the civil rights group American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. "Immigrants are charged for everything: $3 just to have a phone call connect. 10 minute intrastate call can cost $5.50 cents. Short telephone calls can even increase the cost. The FCC attempted to regulate rising fees, putting caps on intrastate call prices, but those caps have been challenged each time."

RTX2AHBB Immigration activists rallied outside the Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a challenge by 26 states over the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's executive action to defer deportation of certain immigrant children and parents who are in the country illegally in Washington April 18, 2016. Photo: Reuters

Progressive change could soon be on the way, though it depends largely on Trump and his White House administration's attitudes toward immigration reform. A landmark case in Northern California could set a precedent requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide expanded access to affordable phone calls and legal information nationwide. Lyon v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, demanded immigrant detention centers provide better access to phone calls, as well as information for free legal aid resources for immigrants, to the estimated 500 to 600 immigrants being held in civil detention in Northern California. 

The Lyons case settlement found the Immigration and Customs Enforcement is in fact capable of supplying better phone operations to ease the burden on immigrants and protect their right to a full and fair trial throughout the region. Beginning in November, the department has been given one year to meet new requirements for telephone systems in Northern California detention centers, including at least 40 phone booths across four centers, extensions on the time allowed to speak with nonprofit organizations, federal offices and family, free and unmonitored phone calls to immigration attorneys and free calls for immigrants who have less than $16 in their personal accounts for a minimum 10 days. 

Prison Legal News, a correctional facility investigatory magazine, collected data on contracts with prison phone companies nationwide, unearthing a multimillion dollar industry in which families provide millions in kickback fees to state and county facilities for phone calls. While West Virginia only charges .01 percent for each phone call made through its detention centers, Arizona received 93.9 percent of the profit made from inmates' phone calls, or roughly $4 million per year.

Alex Friedmann, managing editor at Prison Legal News, said detention centers are entirely capable of allocating the funds necessary to create adequate phone call operations for immigrants, but they fail to do so due to lack of pressure from the federal government.

"A lot of people don’t realize this, but most immigrants have to handle their own cases, as attorneys aren’t guaranteed in immigration cases," Friedmann said. "They’re preparing their own dissents against deportation, and they have to prove they’re at risk if they return to their own country, or to their family members or employers for support and records, and they have to make all those phone calls themselves."