Legal Aid Group for Immigrants Says ICE Shutting Down Hotline Was ‘Retaliation’ for Advocacy Work

“The line’s termination undermines trust and accountability of government institutions, dissuades public service by community organizations, and further isolates vulnerable detained individuals.”

By Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 8-26-2019

The non-profit group Freedom for Immigrants is denouncing ICE for shutting down its pro bono hotline offering legal aid for immigrants in detention earlier this month. (Photo: @MigrantFreedom

A non-profit legal aid organization is threatening action against ICE unless the agency restores its pro bono hotline which has enabled tens of thousands of detained immigrants to obtain legal counsel.

The National Immigration Detention Hotline was available to immigrants in ICE detention through ICE’s pro bono extension, *9233#, but the agency blocked access to the hotline on August 7. According to Freedom for Immigrants, the group that ran the service, ICE objected to the organization’s work publicizing the harsh and unsafe conditions the Trump administration has subjected immigrants to.

In a letter to ICE’s acting director, Matthew Albence, last Thursday, the group said it would take legal action against the agency within ten days unless the phone number was made available to the thousands of immigrants who are currently being detained by the U.S. government.

“The suspension of Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline extension is impermissible retaliation to the organization’s First Amendment-protected expression,” the group wrote. “The hotline’s termination also creates the clear appearance ICE is attempting to silence critics and limit the public’s awareness of alleged abusive conditions in immigration detention.”

Freedom for Immigrants and its supporters called on rights advocates to make donations to help the group pay to keep the hotline active.

“This is not surprising but it is shameful,” wrote former volunteer Hannah Bowman.

ICE claims the hotline, which has taken between 500 and 14,000 calls per month since it was set up in 2013, was shut down because Freeedom for Immigrants was using it for prohibited activities including call forwarding and connecting immigrants in detention with their families. But Freedom of Immigrants says the shutdown was sparked by a mention of the hotline on the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” (OINTB) in which characters discussing immigrant detention, which aired after the group worked with the show’s writers who were researching detention conditions.

“You gotta be careful though,” one character said of the phone number. “Apparently as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down.”

“Being featured in OITNB brought massive attention to the organization’s work regarding abusive and neglectful conditions in immigration detention centers,” wrote Fialho and Galaz. “And for this, we are being punished by our government.”

ICE told the group that its name had simply been removed from the list of ICE-approved nonprofit and community groups, managed by the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) at the Justice Department, and that immigrants can still contact the group directly. But Freedom for Immigrants disputed the claim.

“We understand that not all of the nonprofits and community groups that provide referrals and support services are in the EOIR pro bono list, and yet these other groups still have access to a free and confidential speed dial number that connects them with people in immigration detention,” said the group. “Therefore, it appears that Freedom for Immigrants has been singled out due to the organization’s speech.”

A number of producers and actors on OITNB also spoke out against the attack on the organization and the immigrants who rely on its aid.

“It’s practically impossible to do something as simple as place a phone call without money or without someone on the outside helping you, which is why Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline is so critical,” said actor Vicci Martinez, who plays Dominga “Daddy” Duarte, in a statement. “We stand with Freedom for Immigrants and urge ICE to restore their hotline immediately.”

The actors and producers joined with national rights groups including the ACLU, the National Immigrant Justice Center, and CODEPINK in sending their own letter to Albence.

“The line’s termination undermines trust and accountability of government institutions, dissuades public service by community organizations, and further isolates vulnerable detained individuals,” reads the letter. “We demand that Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline be restored to its original reach so that the organization can continue offering a free and confidential resource to detained individuals across the country.”

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