Group Demands Feds Reinstate Prison Hotline for Immigrants

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A free hotline used by undocumented immigrants held in federal custody intended as a means for them to report abuse was killed by the federal government after it was featured in an episode of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.”

(ACLU photo)

According to a complaint filed Tuesday in California federal court, the hotline gained widespread attention in July 2019 when it was a central plot point in the prison drama series where one inmate facing deportation is told about the hotline.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shut down the hotline about two weeks after the episode premiered on the streaming service according to plaintiff Freedom for Immigrants, which sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Santa Monica-based nonprofit started the hotline in 2013 with approval from the federal government. It says 600 to 14,000 calls a month were received from undocumented detainees. The group also provides visitation programs for immigrants at detention facilities across the country.

In a statement Christina Fialho, co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants said: “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.”

“Orange Is the New Black” chronicles the lives of women in U.S. prisons. In its most recent season, which premiered this past July, an immigrant inmate faces deportation.

Just like in the show, the Freedom for Immigrant hotline’s four-digit extension is free to inmates in federal custody so they can report on abuses or connect with family or other legal resources, according to the complaint.

The group says it worked with the show producers to “help depict life in detention and to promote the hotline on the show.”

After the episode premiered, the issue of federal detention facilities gained attention in media outlets like Vanity Fair and People Magazine. Shortly after, the government shut down the hotline at eight facilities according to the complaint.

In an Aug. 15 email, representatives from ICE said Freedom for Immigrants was not on a list of approved organizations or pro bono attorneys whom detainees could contact.

The group says ICE did not respond to follow-up emails, but instead claimed in an Aug. 26 article in The Washington Post that the hotline violated federal guidelines by allowing detainees to make three-way calls and use call forward, which Freedom for Immigrants says was not detailed in any previous communications.

“The hotline remains shut down and tens of thousands of persons in detention remain unable to access a critical resource,” the group says.

Since the shutdown this past year, Freedom for Immigrants has set up paid phone accounts at multiple detention facilities.

But phone rates can run up to $1 a minute which the group says has “come at significant financial cost to the organization, not to mention the time required to monitor the status of the accounts.”

Rajan Trehan, an attorney with Hueston Hennigan, says his client seeks a preliminary injunction to restore the hotline while the court considers the claims of retaliation and First Amendment violations filed on behalf of detained immigrants. Freedom for Immigrants claims the federal government retaliated against them for their advocacy against the “inhumane, illegal, and immoral treatment of persons in immigration detention.”

“The issue is these calls were free and confidential. These paid calls are now initiated with a message that the calls are being recorded,” Trehan said in an interview. “That can have a chilling effect for those who are feeling vulnerable and isolated and who want to report serious abuses.”

The law firm is representing the group pro bono.

An email to the Department of Homeland Security for comment was not immediately answered.

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