Mention on Netflix show leads ICE to unplug immigration hotline

Andrea Castillo
Los Angeles Times

In the fifth episode of the last season of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” the character Maritza, who has been languishing in an immigrant detention center, finds out about a toll-free hotline she can call to get a free lawyer. As she’s rejoicing, another character, Gloria, cuts her off.

Gloria warns Maritza: “You have to be careful, though. Apparently if they figure out that you’re using the hotline, Big Brother shuts it down.”

ICE shut down a real hotline for detained immigrants run less than two weeks after it was prominently featured on “Orange is the New Black.”

That’s exactly what happened, advocates say. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shut down a real hotline for detained immigrants run by the California group Freedom for Immigrants less than two weeks after it was prominently featured on the show.

Freedom for Immigrants, which runs visitation programs in detention centers across the country, responded Thursday with a cease-and-desist letter charging that the termination is a violation of free speech and amounts to retaliation by the government in an attempt to silence one of its prominent critics. Six actors from “Orange Is the New Black” and more than 100 organizations signed a letter to acting ICE Director Matthew Albence demanding that the line be restored.

The hotline was featured as part of the immigrant detention plot in the show’s seventh season, which was released July 26. After two longtime characters end up in deportation proceedings, they learn that immigrants don’t have the right to a free phone call after they are detained. Out of money, they learn about the Freedom for Immigrants hotline and start passing out the number to others in the facility.

“Even a freely given benefit such as the pro bono hotline can’t be taken away simply because the government is now unhappy with how we are sharing with the public what we know from our communications with people inside,” said Christina Fialho, co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants.

ICE told Freedom for Immigrants that toll-free numbers for pro bono attorneys and organizations must be approved by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts, every three years and that those no longer appearing on the EOIR list will be removed from the system. The numbers are extensions issued by the phone service provider, Talton Communications, as 1-800 numbers don’t work from within detention facilities. Detainees must pay for calls to all other numbers.

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer did not respond to a list of specific questions about the termination of the Freedom for Immigrants hotline. But he said detainees are allowed to make free calls to legal service providers on the ICE-approved list “for the purpose of obtaining initial legal representation.”

“Pro bono organizations found to be violating these rules may be removed from the platform,” he said.

Freedom for Immigrants had held a national toll-free immigrant detention hotline since 2013, when it started a visitation program in Miami. Some months, the organization received 14,000 calls from detainees around the country, many of them held in rural facilities and with no money to call friends or family. Volunteers who staff the phone lines connect immigrants to lawyers, help them gather necessary documents for their immigration case, and assist them in filing complaints about rights violations and abuse.