Newly Released Recordings Capture Abuse in Immigration Detention

This week Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) released seven audio recordings and videos documenting arbitrary use of solitary confinement, sexual assault, physical abuse by federal agents, prolonged detention, retaliatory transfers, and other aspects of life inside U.S. immigration detention.

"I caught one of the officers kissing one of the detainees in the R&D [receiving and departure] room, cause there's no cameras; there's no audio. It's like a black spot in the prison. She [the detention officer] was, like, scared, because they said that if I would open my mouth, she will make sure they would deport me," explains Victoria Villalba with Yordy Cancino, both LGBTQ immigrants who were detained at the Otay Detention Center in San Diego.

"ICE officers used their hands to push the hands on my mouth. Told me to shut up. I cannot breathe, even. I almost died," explains Yu Wang on another recording, who has been deported to China, away from his wife and daughter.

Sylvester Owino was close to obtaining a bond hearing under Rodriguez v. Robbins, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that immigrants who have been locked up for six months or longer in California have a right to a bond hearing to determine whether or not they should continue to be detained. "Most of us that were fighting our cases were moved to Alabama, where we cannot have those kinds of hearings," says Sylvester Owino. Owino remains in detention today in Alabama, after spending eight years in immigration detention without a bond hearing.

"Every time that you have something else or something different that you could do to distract your mind, the officers always come and take your options to be free," says Marcela Castro, who was detained at the James Musick Facility for over six months while seeking asylum. "They don't let you to be a human being or to think. They don't let you to be yourself."

These videos are part of CIVIC's multimedia project "Detention Stories: Life Inside California's New Angel Island." CIVIC and its network of over 30 volunteer-run detention-visitation programs offer the only consistent community presence inside the U.S. immigration detention system. This presence not only ends the immediate isolation that people in detention experience but provides an informal system of independent oversight in which those in detention, as well as friends, family, and community members, make the public aware of the abuses in immigration detention and hold the government accountable.

"The stories people in immigration detention share in these recordings are shocking," said Christina Fialho, co-executive director of CIVIC. "It is no wonder that our federal government does not generally allow audio or video recording devices in immigration detention. If the federal government refuses to be transparent about detention practices, we are going to provide people in detention with a platform to tell their stories."

In addition to these films, CIVIC launched a reporting platform for immigrants detained across the globe to share their stories. To date, no comparable project has documented adult immigration detention stories in a systematic way. Over the next few years, CIVIC will be working with people in detention, their families, and NGOs across the globe to create a larger audio/visual map of the global immigration detention landscape through the stories people in immigration detention desire to share. The project is already off to a good start with stories coming in from as far as Greece and Canada.