Thursday, August 8, 2013
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has abruptly suspended two groups that coordinated volunteers to visit detained immigrants in Southern California.
Friends of Adelanto Detainees and Friends of Orange County Detainees both received notice from ICE on July 24 that they would no longer be permitted to visit immigrants detained in the Santa Ana City Jail, James A. Musick Jail in Orange County, and Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County. The latter is owned by the GEO Group, the country’s second largest private prison contractor.
The suspension came two days after the Huffington Post published a blog post by Christina Fialho criticizing ICE for its treatment of gay and transgender ICE detainees at the Santa Ana City Jail.
Fialho co-directs CIVIC, a national umbrella group for ICE detainee visitation groups. She said ICE officials told her that the two groups were suspended due to the “recent media attention.”
Fialho said the officials noted her Huffington Post blog and the Facebook page and website of Friends of Adelanto Detainees. Volunteers posted accounts of their visits to immigration detainees on the Facebook page.
ICE released a statement saying that ICE’s standards for safeguarding the privacy of detainees “were bypassed by some members of the organization,” referring to Friends of Adelanto Detainees.
ICE officials also said members of the organization had brought media into the detention center without coordinating with ICE ahead of time, skirting the agency’s policies.
Victoria Mena, coordinator of Friends of Adelanto Detainees, said she thought the group was being blamed for Fialho’s blog post.
“That has absolutely nothing to do with the Friends of Adelanto program,” she said. “It just seems like it’s not fair that we’re being blamed for this.”
Mena said her group's volunteers were never told they couldn't write or publish accounts of their visits.
ICE's 2011 standards for detention centers don't mention this type of restriction for visits from community members, although the standards do seem to consider bloggers to be members of the media.
ICE officials confirmed that the Friends of Orange County Detainees program had also been suspended but didn’t give a reason behind the decision.
“It came as a shock to us,” Fialho said of the suspensions. She said CIVIC had worked hard to develop a good relationship with ICE at the national level.
Volunteers visiting immigration detainees were among the first to call attention to harsh conditions and alleged abuses in immigration detention centers. Several groups who visited detainees in New Jersey authored a report in 2010 that got national media attention.
The New York Times wrote:
It is the routine violations that have been most shocking to the small bands of suburban volunteers who visit immigration detainees in New Jersey jails.
Things like visits cut short after 15 minutes, following two-hour waits outside in the rain. Transfers from jail to jail that isolate detainees for months, even when volunteers are asking to see them. And the pillows — only five pillows for more than 100 detainees, who had devised a seniority system to share them.
Fialho’s blog post in the Huffington Post criticized ICE for not properly training its officers to work with gay and transgender detainees. The post also said volunteer visitors had reported an “increasing use of arbitrary lockups for as little as removing one’s bed sheet or dancing.”
Currently 28 immigration detainee visitation programs are affiliated with CIVIC in 14 states. The programs include more than 700 volunteers, Fialho said.
Friends of Adelanto Detainees and their supporters recently held a rally outside of the Adelanto detention center. CIVIC the ACLU of Southern California have also written letters to ICE asking for the visitation programs to be reinstated.
“We understand that this is about First Amendment issues,” Fialho said.
“When we see abuses, we feel it’s our duty to speak out.”
Mena, who started the Adelanto visitation program, said she was mostly concerned about the immigrant detainees who her group had started to visit, and are now cut off.
“We’re getting letters from people on the inside (saying) ‘you said you were going to come back and see us and you never did,’” Victoria said. “To think that, in this state of loneliness, they think they’ve been forgotten about, it’s just heartbreaking.”