Immigration Rights Group Sues ICE to Restore Immigrant Hotline

An immigration rights group from California is taking a stand and suing the Immigration Enforcement and Customs (ICE) agency as well as the Department of Homeland Security for ending a toll-free hotline that allowed immigrants in detention centers to report their concerns about the centers’ conditions.

The Freedom for Immigrants (FFI) organization filed a lawsuit against the two departments on Tuesday to reinstate the National Immigration Detention Hotline.

Quick Facts about the Hotline and Lawsuit

  • The hotline was created by FFI in 2013 to allow immigrants in detention centers to place a confidential call in order to report abuse and/or their concerns on custody conditions, to learn more about resources, and to be connected to family members, according to the lawsuit. It received between 600 and 14,500 calls per month from persons in immigration detention centers around the country, with no cost to them.

  • The organization claimed ICE shut down the hotline on August 23, just two weeks after the hotline’s name was featured in season 7 of the hit Netflix show, “Orange Is The New Black,” which portrays life in prison. During one of the episodes in season 7, the character Gloria Mendoza, provides another character potentially facing deportation, Maritza Ramos, with a four-digit telephone number extension to FFI’s hotline to ask for help. Gloria then warns Maritza to be careful because “Apparently as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down.”

  • Christina Fialho, co-executive director of FFI, said in a statement: “When operational, our free and confidential Hotline received up to 14,000 calls per month from people in immigration detention who were isolated and suffering serious abuses. ICE shut down our Hotline because we drew attention to the inhumanity of immigration detention. It is only the latest in a long pattern of retaliation against Freedom for Immigrants. Today, we have said no more.”

  • On August 23, FFI sent a cease and desist letter to ICE along with a letter of support from over 120 organizations as well as from the producers and actors of “Orange Is The New Black”. The letter states that the “line’s termination undermines trust and accountability of government institutions, dissuades public service by community organizations, and further isolates vulnerable detained individuals.”

  • In the lawsuit, it states the agency’s shutdown of the hotline is a violation of the First Amendment and declared that ICE’s action was “unconstitutional.”

  • Moez M. Kaba, lead counsel and partner at the law firm Hueston Hennigan, said in a statement: “ICE’s shutdown of the Hotline violates FFI’s First Amendment rights to speak freely and the rights of detained immigrants to speak with FFI. We filed this lawsuit on behalf of FFI in order to protect these core First Amendment rights, and to reinstate an important lifeline for persons held in immigrant detention.”

What They’re Saying

In a statement to The North Star, a spokesperson from ICE said the agency does not comment on-going litigation, but stated that the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) department said the hotline was removed from ICE’s pro bono list in October 2018, months before the new season of “Orange is The New Black” aired.

The spokesperson also noted that the hotline was removed because it was unmonitored and unrecorded. The hotline also connected detainees with their families, which is prohibited, as pro bono hotlines are only allowed to connect detainees with attorneys and to help detainees seek legal advice.

“All ICE facilities provide detainees with reasonable and equitable access to telephones. Detainees are further allowed to make free calls to an ICE-approved list of free legal service providers for the purpose of obtaining initial legal representation,” the statement from ICE read. “Because these legal calls are unmonitored and unrecorded, certain prohibited activities, to include three-way calling and call forwarding, are strictly prohibited.”

“Pro bono organizations found to be violating these rules may be removed from the platform. However, removal from this platform in no way limits the ability of an ICE detainee to phone such an organization directly should the detainee wish to do so,” the statement continued.

Jojo Annobil, the executive director of the Immigrant Justice Corps, a non-profit organization and fellowship that trains immigration lawyers and advocates, told TNS that hotlines are a way of monitoring conditions of people in detention centers to reach out. The Immigrant Justice Corps is one of the many organizations that signed the FFI’s letter of support in August. Annobil said hotlines, like the National Immigration Detention Hotline, connect detainees with people who speak their language and someone they can trust.

“When you shut these down, you basically leave these defenseless people on their own and so no one is advocating for them,” said Annobil. “There are detention centers that are not following proper protocol and that’s why you have these hotlines to ensure that these jails are compliant with the detention centers.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.