ICE moves to silence detention center volunteer visitors
Immigration officials stopped allowing a volunteer group to visit people at a San Diego detention facility unless its members agreed not to talk with the news media or other groups about conditions inside.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that members of SOLACE, or Souls Offering Loving and Compassionate Ears, must sign the “Volunteer Code of Ethics” form to be in compliance with the agency’s detention standards. The group so far has refused, arguing that detention standards don’t require them to sign away their 1st Amendment rights in order to visit detainees.
“I think they’re circling the wagons to stop people from knowing what’s going on inside,” said volunteer Steve Gelb of Mission Valley. “It gives ICE more impunity.”
Since 2012, SOLACE volunteers have made more than 1,450 visits to at least 800 would-be immigrants at Otay Mesa. They say they try to give detainees who don’t have anyone to visit them a feeling of humanity, emotional support and hope.
“Without SOLACE, people who are detained at Otay have very little way to communicate with the outside world,” said Angela Fujii, who coordinates the program through the First Unitarian Universalist Church. “It’s a very vulnerable population that we know is now suffering and being neglected.”
The new requirement took volunteers by surprise. They thought they had a good working relationship with ICE and had been told the agency appreciated their work.
At recent meetings, volunteers speculated that either the political climate or critical media coverage of conditions in immigration detention facilities may have led to the change, but they could not think of a specific report that might have triggered the forms’ restrictive language.
The confidentiality sections of the new forms require volunteers to agree not to share information they learn inside without written permission from the warden.
“I will not engage in the delivery or discussion of facility and/or offender specific information outside the performance of my duties,” the Code of Ethics form reads. “I will have no media contact related to the services I provide or any information I gain as a result of having access to the facility, the inmate population, or facility staff.”
The volunteers worried that if a detainee told them about abuse happening at the facility, they wouldn’t be able to speak up. They also took issue with a part of the form that says they “represent” CoreCivic, the for-profit prison company that owns and operates the facility.
“It seems like we’re being put in a straitjacket,” said volunteer Kathy Smith of Scripps Ranch.
ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said that the change came from an “internal pre-audit” of volunteer programs that found SOLACE was not in compliance with the standards the agency uses for its facilities, known as the Performance-Based National Detention Standards.
“Each volunteer must go through a facility orientation and agree to applicable facility rules and procedures,” Mack said. “Volunteer applicants are required to complete the code of ethics package and required dress code.”
SOLACE volunteers hadn’t signed facility forms, but they had submitted information, including Social Security numbers and photo IDs, for background checks when they joined the program. The detention standards do not require the facility rules to include confidentiality clauses in CoreCivic’s volunteer form.
“All religious volunteers seeking access to any of CoreCivic’s immigration facilities are required to undergo an approval process which is at the direction and discretion of our partner agencies,” said Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for CoreCivic, when asked about the forms.
To David Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, the restrictions in the forms are “unconscionable.”
“I don’t say that kind of thing lightly,” Loy said. “This is an absolutely unconstitutional attempt to stifle speech and evade accountability.”
Loy sent a letter Thursday threatening legal action if ICE doesn’t reinstate the program.
Immigrants previously detained at Otay Mesa said visits from program volunteers were life-changing.
“It gave me hope to be free again,” said Yousra, who preferred not to give her last name because she’s still afraid of the country she fled. “They are still supporting me and being by my side to stay strong and keep on fighting.”
Sylvester Owino, who came to the U.S. from Kenya and now has his own business selling food at farmers’ markets, spent more than nine years in immigration detention while his case went through rounds of appeal.
“It’s a blow to the detainees,” Owino said of the program’s suspension. “They have nobody to talk to, nobody to go to.”
He recalled the changes he felt when he started getting visits from SOLACE volunteers.
“In detention, they make us feel like we’re nothing,” Owino said. “You’re missing the outside world. By [SOLACE] coming to visit you, it’s not just the inside world. We feel more welcome.”
Volunteers said they speak up for detainees who don’t appear to be getting appropriate medical care, as in the case of one immigrant with cancer or another who had an infected bite on his arm.
Sometimes they help detainees contact relatives in the U.S. who don’t know where they are. Detainees’ phones are confiscated when they enter the facility, and they often don’t have phone numbers memorized to call from the detention phones.
This is not the first time that ICE has suspended the San Diego visitation program over refusal to sign forms that had confidentiality clauses.
In 2013, following volunteers raising concerns about alleged sexual abuse at Otay Mesa Detention Center, ICE introduced similar forms and temporarily suspended SOLACE. After news media got involved, the volunteers were allowed to continue without signing the controversial forms.
Freedom for Immigrants, a national organization based in Oakland that coordinates among visitation programs at different immigration detention facilities, tried contacting ICE in October on SOLACE’s behalf.
Shortly after the organization sent its letter, ICE blocked Otay Mesa detainees’ access to the organization’s hotline, according to Executive Director Christina Fialho.
“It seeks to silence critics and prohibit the public from learning important information about treatment in detention,” said Fialho, whose group released a report in July documenting more than 800 complaints of hate-related abuse in immigration detention, including at Otay Mesa Detention Center.
SOLACE volunteers began meeting with staff at congressional offices around San Diego this week to ask for help, first at Rep. Susan A. Davis’ office and then Rep. Scott Peters’. They hope to meet with Rep. Juan Vargas’ office next week.
“The people we tend to see are the people who have suffered incredibly,” Gelb told Peters’ staff. “It’s not for us that we want it reinstated. This is a service for people with nothing.”
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.