LOS ANGELES (CN) – A free hotline used by immigrants held in detention facilities to connect them with legal resources or family members was ordered to be restored by a Los Angeles federal judge after federal officials blocked a nonprofit from operating the service.
U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr., who ordered the national hotline restored, said the government’s actions would “chill” a person’s First Amendment rights, including reporting on abuses at federal facilities.
The Department of Homeland Security shut down the hotline at federal facilities last summer, about two weeks after the premiere of the latest season of the prison drama “Orange is the New Black,” where one inmate facing deportation is told about the hotline.
A Santa Monica-based nonprofit, Freedom for Immigrants, started the hotline in 2013 alongside the group Friends of Miami Dade Detainees with government approval, and like in the show the hotline service is free.
“Orange Is the New Black” chronicles the lives of women in U.S. prisons and show producers worked with the nonprofit to better depict the lives of detainees and to promote the hotline on the show, according to group in their complaint filed last December in the Central District of California.
The group says the hotline could receive anywhere between 600 to 14,500 calls a month from undocumented detainees held in U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement custody. The hotline allowed detainees to report on abuses or connect with family or get in touch with other legal resources, according to the complaint.
But 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.
Freedom for Immigrants said ICE claimed in an Aug. 15, 2019, email the group was not part of a list of approved organizations or pro bono attorneys whom detainees could contact. After that, attempts to follow up with the federal government were ignored. The nonprofit said it set up multiple phone accounts at several facilities at great cost.
In an 11-page order filed Tuesday, Birotte wrote that the plaintiffs have established they would succeed on a First Amendment retaliation claim.
Abbreviating the names of the government agency and the nonprofit, Birotte said that, when the hotline shut down, this “frustrated its mission of reporting on conditions of confinement in ICE detention facilities, and forced FFI to divert financial resources to pay $1 per minute for telephone calls with immigrant detainees.”
He said Homeland Security could not rebut the nonprofit’s evidence that it was denied approval, even though Freedom for Immigrants is an affiliate of Friends of Miami Dade Detainees, which does have approval and access to the hotline.
Any injury the nonprofit suffered can be fairly traced to Homeland Security’s conduct when the hotline was shut down, Birotte wrote.
“As to redressability, FFI has shown that its injury will likely be remedied by an injunction reinstating the hotline,” Birotte said.
Birotte ruled that the federal government has to agree that the nonprofit’s hotline is protected under the First Amendment and, left with no other options, detained immigrants who want to report abuses in these facilities will have to make use of communicating on monitored lines.
“This case should remind us all that the Trump administration is not a law unto itself, but rather accountable to the people and our Constitution,” Freedom for Immigrants co-founder Christina Fialho said in a statement.
“As ICE has indicated it intends to destroy complaints from detained people about abuses and medical neglect, we will continue to use the Hotline to record abuses and elevate the stories that this system is trying to silence. We look forward to answering calls from people in detention once again,” hotline director Cynthia Galaz said.
Representatives at Homeland Security did not immediately answer an email seeking comment Wednesday evening.
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