UPDATE: After the Freedom for Immigrants hotline was featured in a season 7 episode of Orange Is the New Black, ICE took action and — just as the fictional characters predict — blocked access to the free hotline inside its facilities. Mashable reports that Christina Fialho and Cynthia M. Galaz, directors of that organization and authors of the below op-ed, sent a cease-and-desist letter to ICE stating that blocking their hotline, which helps detained people access legal aid, infringes upon those people's First Amendment rights. Their original article follows.
“You gotta be careful though. Apparently as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down.” These are Gloria’s words to Maritza in the recently-released final season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. The characters are discussing calling Freedom for Immigrants’ national hotline to access resources to fight their case from inside a privately-run immigrant prison.
The hit show’s fictional portrayal of immigration detention could not be closer to the truth.
Too many of the men, women, and children who we work with inside U.S. immigration detention have lived through the experience of going to court without an attorney. Too many of our community members know what it's like to be targeted simply for supporting one another. And Big Brother, as we’ve learned, is always a looming threat.
Since 2015, our organization has run a national hotline that connects people in immigrant jails with volunteers and resources, sometimes receiving over 14,000 calls per month. We have received calls from immigrants who are originally from 148 different countries and speak 80 different languages. Our free hotline is a lifeline to the outside world for those who cannot afford to pay for a phone call, which can cost over $10 for just 15 minutes.
Take Roberto* as an example. He was detained at the privately-run Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego, which has been sued for forced labor violations under human trafficking laws, and has one of the highest rates of sexual assault, according to our report. Roberto suffered from several mental health problems, including psychosis. However, according to Roberto the medical staff at Otay did not honor his prescriptions, and, after two months of submitting grievances through the proper channels and being continuously ignored, he called us.
Freedom for Immigrants was able to facilitate Roberto’s access to critical medication. But perhaps most importantly, we were able to explain to a judge that he in no way could represent himself in court, and was therefore eligible for a free attorney, thanks to an ACLU lawsuit that requires legal representation for non-citizens with severe mental disorders in California, Arizona, and Washington.
Within a week Roberto was assigned a lawyer, who successfully helped him win his asylum case. He is now free and supported by his community.
Like Roberto, OITNB’s Maritza obtained a pro bono lawyer through our hotline. Realizing that other detained women are desperate for help, in season 7 episode 5, Maritza writes down the hotline number over and over again to hand out to others.
This scene struck a strong emotional chord with us, triggering memories of the many times we have surreptitiously written our hotline number on bits of notebook paper during facility visits and watched as detained individuals tried memorizing the digits requiring no translation.
Although we have the right to give our phone number to people in immigration detention, we have tried to hide our hotline distribution from prison guards and U.S. Immigration & Customs (ICE) officials for fear of retaliation. But what we have feared all along — what Gloria so astutely cautions when invoking Big Brother — happened last year. ICE blocked access to our hotline, first in Otay and then in other facilities, after a group of our volunteers refused to sign away their right to speak with the media about conditions inside.
This is just one example of how ICE has retaliated against us. In 2013, ICE shut down three visitation programs that we were affiliated with, in response to a Huffington Post blog we wrote. Our personal cell phone numbers also have been blocked at various points in time from immigrant jails and prisons. And while we have continued to offer free phone calls to people in detention thanks to the generosity of our donors, we are still fighting to get our hotline restored.
There are countless examples of retaliatory actions or simply scare tactics that we and other advocates — even reporters — have encountered. But while we can withstand this as free people on the outside, people in immigration detention face threats of solitary confinement, transfers, and even deportation when trying to access our services and the services of other nonprofits.
VIDEO: The Last Thing the Cast of Orange Is The New Black Googled
As people watch OITNB’s new season, we hope that they remember this show is largely based on the reality that tens of thousands of people face every day. Roberto’s case ended happily, but Maritza’s fearlessness in passing around the hotline number to other women has a different outcome.
Christina Fialho is an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. Cynthia Galaz is the national hotline director for Freedom for Immigrants. To support Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline efforts, visit aplos.com.