You might remember how back in 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) infamously shut down a free hotline for detained people seeking legal help after it was featured in an episode of the Emmy-winning Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black? The hotline had been in service for years and fielded thousands of calls monthly, but within two weeks of the season’s premiere, ICE shut it down.
Freedom for Immigrants, which has done incredible work advocating for detained people, then sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), demanding the hotline’s reinstatement. In a major victory for detained immigrants and their advocates, the organization announced last week that the federal government has agreed to keep the hotline in place for at least another five years, as well as to pay over $100,000 in legal fees. Despite ICE’s efforts, the hotline isn’t going anywhere.
“ICE can not get away with sweeping its appalling human rights abuses under the rug,” Freedom for Immigrants deputy executive director Layla Razavi said in a statement released by the organization. “ICE has tried again and again to silence and censor anyone who speaks out against its abusive immigration detention system.”
Freedom for Immigrants had noted in its lawsuit that the hotline had in fact been in existence since 2013 when ICE targeted it after it was notably featured in the final season of the series, which focused on the immigration detention and potential deportation of a number of main characters. Diane Guerrero, the actor portraying one of the characters facing deportation, is in real-life a U.S. citizen who bravely revealed that both of her parents and brother were deported when she was just 14.
“On the show, one OITNB character, Gloria Mendoza, provides another character potentially facing deportation, Maritza Ramos, with a four-digit telephone extension so she can contact FFI’s Hotline for help,” the lawsuit stated. “Presciently, Gloria warns Maritza that, ‘You gotta be careful though. Apparently as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down.’” And that’s exactly what happened, both on and off the show.
Following the lawsuit, “U.S. District Judge André Birotte found that FFI’s speech ‘was a substantial and motivating factor behind DHS’s shutdown of the hotline,’” the organization said. “The settlement, signed on Thursday, July 1, provides FFI recourse before the court should ICE seek to improperly restrict the hotline again.”
Per Freedom for Immigrants, the hotline has received up to 14,000 calls per month when regularly in service. “FFI monitors detention conditions and gathers detained immigrants’ information and stories through the Hotline and its national network of visitation programs,” the lawsuit said. “This on-the-ground monitoring enables FFI to report abuse of persons in immigration detention and to shed light on detention conditions, including through legal action, political advocacy, and, significantly, media coverage.”
The previous administration had claimed that it shut down the hotline because detained immigrants had allegedly violated rules around phone calls. But the judge clearly thought otherwise. Plus, ICE has quite publicly threatened to retaliate against entire states in the past. Last year, detained immigrants at the notorious Otay Mesa prison in California were also blocked from calling advocates, until public outrage forced the facility to backtrack. Officials knew exactly what they were doing.
“Our settlement ensures that the National Immigration Detention Hotline will continue to provide a critical line of communication to those in ICE custody and will allow us to keep bringing to light the horrors experienced by people inside without facing retaliation from ICE,” Razavi continued. “The hotline remains an indispensable tool in providing people in detention a secure way to report abuses and advocate for their freedom, and we are committed to maintaining and defending it until there is no one left in detention to place a call,” said Amanda Díaz, Freedom for Immigrants hotline manager.
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