Federal judge orders ICE to reinstate national immigration hotline for detainees – San Francisco Chronicle

A federal judge issued an order this week temporarily reinstating a national hotline for detained immigrants that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shut down in August, shortly after the popular Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black” aired a show about it.

Judge Andre Birotte Jr. in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday ordering ICE to immediately reinstate the hotline until a case against the federal agency by an Oakland nonprofit, Freedom for Immigrants, is resolved.

At issue is a toll-free, confidential hotline that until 2018 existed in over 200 facilities across the country and handled up to 14,000 calls a month. At that time, ICE shut it down in all but eight facilities in Florida. Then, two weeks after Netflix featured the hotline in a show last summer, ICE shut down the hotline in the remaining detention centers.

Established in 2013 by Freedom for Immigrants and a Florida affiliate, the hotline helped detainees report abuse, find resources and connect with family members. Volunteers fielded calls from ICE detainees across the country who shared issues and allegations, including sexual assault, improper use of solitary confinement, poor food quality and mold in cells, said Christina Fialho, executive director of Freedom for Immigrants.

The group sued ICE in December, claiming authorities shut down most of the hotline in 2018 to punish immigration advocates. The group said ICE continued its retaliation in August, shortly after the Netflix show’s season premiere on July 26 featured immigrants using the hotline and reporting issues.

“The decision to shut down our hotline was an attack not just on people in detention but on our free speech,” said Fialho. “This case reminds us all that the Trump administration is accountable to the people and the Constitution.”

She called the hotline a crucial tool that gives detainees a voice and helps them build a community behind bars.

Lawyers for the Department of Homeland Security, where ICE operates, told the court that it shut down the hotline because it allows hotlines only for groups on a government list of pro bono legal service providers, and Freedom for Immigrants wasn’t on the list.

The group also triggered security concerns because it arranged three-way calls and call-forwarding, the agency told the court.

But in his ruling Tuesday, Birotte said that evidence presented by Homeland Security showed its officials knew about the call forwarding as early as December 2013.

He said evidence in the case showed the federal agency had a “history of retaliatory conduct” against Freedom for Immigrants.

On Wednesday, ICE told The Chronicle that halting the hotline didn’t prevent detainees from hiring a lawyer from its approved list of legal service providers. ICE also said it gives detainees “reasonable and equitable access to telephones.”

Created by TV producer Jenji Kohan, “Orange is the New Black” often touches on pressing social issues, such as immigration. The show delves into the lives of women incarcerated in a fictional minimum-security prison in upstate New York.

In the show that led to the controversy, two of the main characters, Blanca and Maritza, are detained by ICE after their release from prison. With no money to make calls, the pair learns about the Freedom for Immigrants hotline and secretly shares the number with other detainees.

Two weeks after the show, on Aug. 7, ICE shut down the hotline.

That scene — and others featured in that show— prompted ICE to retaliate, Freedom for Immigrants said.

The group initially asked Homeland Security to reinstate the hotline, according to Fialho, who said the agency didn’t respond and didn’t reinstate the line.

The group sued in December, claiming the shutdown violated its constitutional rights and retaliated against Freedom for Immigrants for reporting abuses in detention facilities.

To bolster its claim, the group told the court that Homeland Security had retaliated before. In 2018, after a Freedom for Immigrants affiliate helped reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, the federal agency shut down a visitation program — which the group said was a response to its work.

The group complained to Homeland Security’s office of civil rights, according to court papers, and a month later, the agency retaliated again by ending the hotline in all but eight locations in Florida.

In August, the agency shut down the hotline altogether.

“We never, ever imagined that they would actually shut it off. It was certainly shocking for us,” said Carolina Paiz, executive producer of the show. “It was devastating to see that somehow we had hurt the very immigrants we were seeking to give voice to.”

Paiz was among a group of writers and producers who went inside the Adelanto detention facility in Southern California to do research for the show. She remembers writing the hotline number in the palm of her hand and sharing it with detainees whom she met with.

“It’s more than a hotline — I would say it’s a lifeline,” she said. “It became this beautiful thing where we could say, ‘at least there is this.’”

Fialho said ICE’s decision to shut down the hotline has caused “irreparable harm to us and to people inside.”

“This isn’t something that can be repaired,” she said. “These folks who have been detained haven’t been able to contact us.”

Tatiana Sanchez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: tatiana.sanchez@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TatianaYSanchez.