The hotline that helps detained immigrants share their stories

A detainee talks on a pay phone in a residential pod during a media tour of the ICE detention center in Tacoma, Washington, December 16, 2019. Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

In the first episode of the final season of prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black, one character, Maritza Ramos, faces deportation. She is held at an immigrant detention center—which, beyond the show, currently hold more than thirty thousand immigrants and are some of the most impenetrable places in the country for journalists. A friend gives Ramos a gift: the number for a free hotline that can provide help. “You gotta be careful, though,” the friend warns. “Apparently, as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down.”

The National Immigration Detention Hotline is very real, and is run by Freedom for Immigrants, an advocacy organization whose goal is the abolition of the US immigration detention system. Since 2013, FFI has operated the nation’s largest immigration detention hotline to monitor conditions in detention facilities and to provide detained immigrants a way to seek legal assistance, report alleged abuse or neglect, or simply talk with family and loved ones, who sometimes have no idea where they are (many are often transferred between facilities or do not have funds to pay for calls). The hotline is an extension operated through US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s free and confidential national phone program. 

At the time the Orange Is the New Black episode aired, last July, the hotline, which was unmonitored by ice, fielded up to fourteen thousand calls per month, mostly from immigrants reporting abuses—often medical neglect—without fear of retaliation, says Christina Fialho, FFI’s director. It’s also one of the only methods journalists have for gaining firsthand accounts from inside facilities that remain a national scandal. 

Then, less than two weeks after the Orange Is the New Black episode aired, the phones at FFI stopped ringing. “We tried to see if it was a glitch within our own system or with the telecommunications system,” Fialho says. “We knew there was a definite problem.” According to court documents, ice had removed the hotline from its program because the number did not appear on a Department of Justice–maintained list, though it did appear on ice’s pro bono list.

FFI quickly secured a new backup line—one that, like most calls from detention centers, wasn’t free, and was monitored by ice. Then it filed a complaint against ice and the Department of Homeland Security. In February, a judge granted FFI’s motion for a preliminary injunction, restoring the national hotline—and, with it, access to immigrants detained by one of the most inscrutable agencies in the country.

The most reliable source of information regarding conditions in ICE jails and prisons comes from those on the inside and their loved ones.

Through the hotline, FFI gathers firsthand reports from inside detention centers, which enables it to identify trends and fuel accountability reporting on conditions for detained immigrants. “It can be pretty tough to figure out what’s happening in detention centers,” says Andrea Castillo, a Los Angeles Times immigration reporter. Several journalists have reported facing obstruction from accessing immigration courts or detention centers, not to mention the barriers for even talking to the people held inside. The cost of phone calls can preclude some immigrants from providing details about detention facilities, so Castillo has to consistently keep funds in her phone account so sources can call her. Asking for comment from ice or detention facilities can yield opaque statements, she says. “Because of that, I rely heavily on groups like Freedom for Immigrants.”

In a statement, DHS declined, through an ice spokesperson, to comment on the FFI case, citing pending litigation. The statement said ice “is firmly committed to ensuring its facilities adhere to ice’s detention standards, which provide several levels of oversight in order to ensure that residents in ice custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments.”

Since covid-19, the hotline has become more crucial than ever for both reporters and detained immigrants. In March, ice banned all social visitation at detention centers in an effort to safeguard detained immigrants amid the pandemic. But, as many advocates feared, covid-19 quickly spread through some facilities. In April, FFI began tracking confirmed cases of covid-19 in ice detention facilities and publishing a biweekly analysis with information from its hotline, among other sources. As of April 14, FFI counted seventy-seven positive cases across twenty-two facilities. Around that time, ice released hundreds of detained immigrants and told news outlets that others were being kept in their cells for as many as twenty-three hours a day in order to enforce social distancing. Still, by April 29, that number had grown to four hundred twenty-five cases across thirty-five facilities, swelling to more than nine hundred cases at over sixty facilities as of June, according to ice data. Even so, “the most reliable source of information regarding conditions in ice jails and prisons comes from those on the inside and their loved ones,” says Cynthia Galaz, FFI’s hotline director.

In April, the LA Times’ Castillo and Brittny Mejia published an in-depth feature about the perils facing immigrants in ice custody during the pandemic. Their story includes the voices of several detained immigrants whose accounts were made public via the hotline:

On Friday afternoon, an asylum seeker from El Salvador held at Otay Mesa Detention Center called a toll-free hotline run by the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants. He has cancer…and he and 13 other people with health issues had been quarantined for more than a week. The man knew that two employees at the facility had tested positive for the virus and said he doesn’t believe that officials there are prepared for an outbreak. “With this whole situation, though I have a lot of faith in God, I’m also human,” he said.

In addition to the hotline, FFI publishes a magazine, Immprint, which regularly features letters and writings from immigrants in detention—“a platform for whatever the immigrants want to speak about,” Galaz says. FFI also tracks complaints through an internal case-management system, an effort that proves valuable for identifying trends—Freedom for Immigrants filed a federal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security in April 2017 after seeing an uptick in calls from immigrants abut sexual assault and harassment in detention centers—but might also preserve history. Under approval from the National Archives, ice can destroy records relating to the abuse or deaths of undocumented immigrants, as well as complaints about discrimination or medical neglect. “That information is going to be lost forever, and we will not know about the abuses that are happening there,” Galaz says. “But the complaints that we record in our system through the hotline, they don’t get destroyed.”

The FFI hotline is reachable at 209-757-3733 outside of detention centers or 9233 within detention centers, Monday through Friday, from 6am to 8pm PST.

ICYMI: Covering immigration in a private contractor’s world

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sonam Vashi is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist who writes about justice, inequity, and the South. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, CNN, Atlanta magazine, and several others.