Federal officials have suspended volunteer visitation programs at three immigrant detention facilities in Southern California, sparking outcry from civil liberties groups who say the move further isolates detainees held out of sight, far from their families and often without access to legal assistance.
Volunteers who meet regularly with detainees at two facilities in Orange County and one in San Bernardino County say they were notified by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials July 24 that the programs were being suspended.
FOR THE RECORD:
Immigrant detention: In the Aug. 21 LATExtra section, an article about federal officials cutting off visits by outside groups to immigrant detention facilities misidentified one of the groups, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, as Community Initiatives for Visiting Inmates in Confinement. —
A spokeswoman for ICE said it was because some members of the visitation groups had bypassed standards put in place to protect the privacy of the detainees. She said the groups would be allowed to resume their programs if they agreed to follow the agency's privacy policies.
The suspension, which comes amid a large-scale expansion of the nation's immigrant detention system, followed the publication of an article on Huffington Post criticizing the agency's treatment of transgender detainees at an immigrant holding facility at the Santa Ana Jail.
In the article, Christina Fialho, an attorney who heads an organization that represents dozens of visitation groups nationwide, alleged that some transgender inmates were being delayed access to hormone treatment, and said guards often told transgender women to "use their male voice." She did not identify the detainees or guards.
In a letter to Fialho on Friday, a top ICE official said blogging had transformed Fialho into a "media representative." If she planned to visit the detention center again with the intention of publishing stories, the official said, she would have to get clearance with the agency's media representatives, disclose the purpose of the visit and obtain a signed consent form from any detainee she interviews.
"While promoting transparency with regard to immigration detention, ICE is dedicated to ensuring that detainees' personal information is respected and safeguarded," wrote Thomas Homan, the executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations at ICE.
Fialho said that though she does not believe that her blog post raised privacy concerns, her group was "open to working out a process that adequately protects detainees' privacy."
Michael Kaufman, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said the agency's demands may violate free speech protections.
In a news release issued by the ACLU, Kaufman said the suspensions "give the clear appearance that ICE is trying to silence its critics and shield the public's awareness of detention conditions."
The nation's immigrant detention system has expanded rapidly in recent years and now boasts a daily population of around 34,000 detainees who are held in more than 250 jails, private prisons and other facilities around the country.
Four years ago, after growing complaints about conditions in some of the detention centers, President Obama pledged to overhaul the system with greater federal oversight. But some immigrants' rights advocates say the reform efforts haven't gone far enough.
In her Huffington Post article, Fialho complained about a lack of training for guards assigned to a special section of the Santa Ana detention facility reserved for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender detainees. She said some transgender inmates had been denied hormone therapy because of long delays in transferring their medical records from other detention facilities.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE, said allegations of misconduct are always promptly investigated. She said that under ICE guidelines, transgender detainees who were already receiving hormone therapy when taken into custody are allowed to continue the therapy.
The visitation programs were suspended at Santa Ana City Jail and the James A. Musick Facility in Orange County, two jails that ICE pays to house immigrant detainees, as well as at the privately run Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County. The Adelanto facility, with 1,300 beds, is the largest immigrant detention center in Southern California.
Victoria Mena, a volunteer coordinator with Friends of Adelanto Detainees, said she did not know why members of her group had been blacklisted from visiting detainees. The blog post written by Fialho, she said, had nothing to do with her group's program, although the group was started with the help of Fialho's national organization, Community Initiatives For Visiting Inmates in Confinement.
"They've never really given us an explanation," Mena said.
Mena said her volunteers filled a critical gap at Adelanto, which is located in the High Desert, 40 miles north of San Bernardino. Volunteers discuss legal options with detainees, who are sometimes taken into custody without their family's knowledge, and help connect them to relatives on the outside.
"I've heard a lot about the isolation, about how secluded people feel," Mena said. "They're in the middle of the desert in the middle of nowhere."