Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials shut down an advocacy group’s immigrant legal aid hotline less than two weeks after it was featured on an episode of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” — eerily mirroring a character’s line in the episode.
In 2013, Freedom for Immigrants established the National Immigration Detention Hotline to provide free and confidential legal aid to detained immigrants, who have no legal right to an attorney.
The organization said Friday that ICE terminated the hotline on Aug. 7, barely two weeks after Netflix released the seventh and final season of “Orange Is the New Black” on July 26. The fifth episode featured the hotline while documenting poor conditions in immigrant detention centers, based on a visit the show’s writers made to a real-life detention facility.
When Maritza (Diane Guerrero) finds out about the hotline, fellow detainee Gloria (Selenis Leyva) warns her: “You have to be careful, though. Apparently, if they figure out that you’re using the hotline, Big Brother shuts it down.”
On Thursday, Freedom for Immigrants sent ICE a cease and desist letter, saying that the agency’s termination of the hotline represents a violation of the First Amendment and “undermines trust and accountability of government institutions, dissuades public service by community organizations, and further isolates vulnerable detained individuals.”
Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, called the timing of ICE shutting down the hotline “deeply concerning,” adding that it’s “disappointing but not unexpected that Trump’s ICE would engage in such cruel and undemocratic behavior.”
“Once again, ICE is trying to make us choose between our First Amendment rights and supporting our friends in immigration detention,” she said in a statement Friday. “This is not a choice our government can legally ask us to make.”
In response, ICE said Monday that its termination of the hotline was not related to “Orange Is the New Black,” but because “this group engaged in prohibited conduct” by using three-way calls and call forwarding, and because it advertised that the hotline helps “[connect] immigrants in detention to their family,” in addition to providing legal aid.
“The claim this has anything to do with a recent TV show is pure fiction,” an ICE spokesman said in an email to HuffPost, explaining that “pro bono organizations found to be violating these rules” may be removed from the agency’s approved list of pro bono immigration hotlines. “However, removal from this platform in no way limits the ability of an ICE detainee to phone such an organization directly should the detainee wish to do so.”
ICE has previously shut down or restricted Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline, claiming rule violations. The group believes it is being targeted because of its work exposing poor conditions at immigration detention centers, Fialho said. In the group’s letter, it claimed that other groups that may have been removed from the agency’s list “still have access to a free and confidential speed dial number that connects them with people in immigration detention.”
Freedom for Immigrants also sent a letter of support signed by more than 100 advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as “Orange Is the New Black” executive producer Tara Herrmann and actors Guerrero, Emily Tarver, Alysia Reiner, Laura Gómez, Beth Dover and Vicci Martinez.
“We are heartbroken to hear about the shutdown of this hotline,” Martinez said in a statement. “It’s practically impossible to do something as simple as place a phone call without money or without someone on the outside helping you, which is why Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline is so critical. We stand with Freedom for Immigrants and urge ICE to restore their hotline immediately.”
The group is raising money to pay for detainees’ phone calls amid the hotline’s shutdown.