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SPLC: Reopen immigrant visitation program at Alabama detention center

The program, providing detained immigrants with a connection to the outside world, was shut down after detainees filed a civil rights complaint alleging abuse at the facility.

The SPLC and the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) demanded today that federal and local authorities reinstate a visitation program for immigrants and asylum seekers that was shut down at the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama after CIVIC filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of detainees abused at the facility.

Shutting down the program violates the First Amendment’s protections for free speech, according to the letter to the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights. The SPLC also urged ICE to clarify its policies to prevent local officials from attempting to shut down such programs in the future to silence critics – a national issue.

“Retaliating against detained immigrants and their advocates for speaking out against injustice is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Eunice Cho, staff attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “We cannot allow officials to gag their critics and keep the public in the dark about potentially abusive conditions.”

The Etowah Visitation Project has allowed volunteers from community groups to visit men held by ICE at the detention center. The program, established in November 2013, is designed to provide detainees with a connection to the outside world, combatting loneliness, isolation and depression. The detention center is far from many of the men’s families and legal counsel. 

A civil rights complaint was filed in July on behalf of 22 current and former detainees at the facility. It described physical abuse – including beatings to coerce detainees into signing deportation documents. The program was shut down two weeks after the complaint was filed by CIVIC.

The Etowah Visitation Project, a member of CIVIC, operated the visitation program with the consent of the sheriff’s office and ICE. The decision to end the program is part of a disturbing trend of authorities shutting down visitation programs after issues are raised on behalf of detainees, only to reinstate them after advocacy groups raise First Amendment concerns, bringing even more attention to the issue.

In 2013, ICE shut down three visitation programs in Southern California after CIVIC and two of its member organizations used blogs and other websites to raise issues on behalf of detainees. ICE shut down a fourth CIVIC-affiliated visitation program in 2014 at the Otay Detention Center in San Diego after the program raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse at the facility.

ICE also shut down the Friends of Broward County Detainees, a CIVIC-affiliated visitation program at the Broward Transitional Center in Florida last year. The program’s leaders had presented testimony criticizing the detention system at a congressional hearing in Broward County hosted by Florida U.S. Reps. Joe Garcia and Ted Deutch.

All of these programs were reinstated after advocates raised concerns. But the ACLU Foundation of Southern California with the pro bono support of the law firm Sidley Austin LLP sent a cease-and-desist letter to officials today describing another instance of retaliation – an attorney denied access by ICE after publicly criticizing the immigration detention system.

“As advocates for people in immigration detention, we have to use our privilege as citizens to both protect and empower people in detention and understand that retaliation against us is an extension of a much more serious retaliation against people in detention, with dire consequences,” said Christina Mansfield, co-founder and executive director of CIVIC. “We are prepared to pursue all appropriate avenues of legal redress to protect our rights and the rights of people in detention.”