Detainees' calls were successfully completed 35 percent to 74 percent of the time each month between November 2005 and November 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress' auditing arm.
The United States uses a criminal detention model to hold immigrants, although most are charged with administrative violations of immigration laws, and none are guaranteed the protections routinely provided to U.S. citizens or criminal defendants, including public defenders.
As a result, federal authorities have agreed to 38 nonbinding detention guidelines with the American Bar Association, including telephone access to legal counsel, as a form of due process.
"Without sufficient internal control policies and procedures in place, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is unable to offer assurance that detainees can access legal services, file external grievances and obtain assistance from their consulates," the July 6 GAO report concluded.
Concern about potential mistreatment has grown in Congress and among civil liberties groups as a national enforcement crackdown has sent the detention population soaring.
"The importance of meaningful access to legal representation and materials for individuals in immigration detention cannot be overstated," said Karen Mathis, president of the American Bar Association, which praised the GAO's work. "When the detention standards are not implemented properly ... immigrants in detention are denied due process."
Spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said ICE has agreed to improve its telephone service and contractor oversight. However, she said, "We are encouraged by the finding in the GAO's most recent report which notes that detention facilities generally complied" with ICE's standards even though the size of the detainee population had tripled.
The GAO said its investigation of 23 detention sites was not a scientific sample, and results could not be projected to all 352 sites. It reported pervasive telephone system failings and isolated violations of at least one of eight standards audited -- including food, medical care and use of force -- at nine sites studied.
For example, four facilities did not fully comply with grievance standards. The same number reported overcrowding of as much as double their rated capacity and "triple-bunking" in detainee cells built for two. The overcrowding is the subject of pending litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The GAO report said ICE's Detention and Removal Operations unit also failed to reliably track the number of complaints it receives or their result. "Standards for internal control in the federal government call for clear documentation of transactions and events" in order to disclose "potential systemic problems throughout the detention system," investigators wrote.
The huge detention expansion is part of a stepped-up enforcement campaign meant to underpin the Bush administration's failed immigration overhaul effort. The daily detention population increased from 19,718 in 2005 to about 26,500 in February, even as officials sped up or denied more hearings to detainees and deported virtually all non-Mexican detainees.
Illegal immigrants spent an average of 37.6 days in custody as of April, although one-fourth of them, about 70,000, were held more than 44 days, and 5 percent, about 14,000, more than four months. Federal law gives illegal immigrants 30 days to go to an appeals board and to the courts before rulings against them become final.