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A national hotline for detained immigrants was shut down less than two weeks after it was featured in the final season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
“ICE is attempting to silence its critics and block people in immigration detention from connecting with communities on the outside,” Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-founder/executive director for Freedom for Immigrants, says in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s disappointing but not unexpected that Trump’s ICE would engage in such cruel and undemocratic behavior.”
The National Immigration Detention Hotline, which was name-checked on OITNB, has been a free and confidential resource offering legal assistance to people who are in immigration detention since 2013. The hotline was shut down Aug. 7, according to the group, echoing a plotline from the seventh and final season of Jenji Kohan’s Emmy-winning prison dramedy.
The final season of OITNB, released July 26, tackled the current immigration crisis when the show’s fictional private prison opened an immigration detention center. The streaming giant’s most-popular series brought viewers inside a carefully researched detention center to show how some of the main inmates helped detainees by sharing the number to the hotline. “You gotta be careful, though. Apparently as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down,” inmate Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) warns detainee Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero).
By silencing the hotline, Immigration and Customs Enforcement appears to be bringing that warning to life. “The National Hotline is a crucial resource for people in immigration detention,” Cynthia Marlene Galaz, Freedom for Immigrants’ national hotline director, tells THR. “It is concerning that ICE’s response to criticism is to block avenues of free and safe communication.”
On Aug. 22, the California nonprofit issued a cease and desist letter to ICE asking that the hotline be restored. It was accompanied by a letter of support signed by members of Congress, and producers and actors from OITNB in partnership with 121 organizations. OITNB‘s immigration detention storylines, which played out across multiple episodes, were widely covered in the media and praised by critics for daring, topical and accurate storytelling. “Being featured in OITNB brought massive attention to the organization’s work regarding abusive and neglectful conditions in immigration detention centers. And for this, we are being punished by our government,” reads the letter, in part.
Producer Tara Herrmann and stars Guerrero, Vicci Martinez, Emily Tarver, Alysia Reiner, Laura Gómez and Beth Dover are demanding the hotline be restored. A statement from Martinez reads: “We are heartbroken to hear about the shutdown of this hotline. 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.”
When reached by THR, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the group engaged in prohibited conduct. “All ICE facilities provide detainees with reasonable and equitable access to telephones,” says a spokesperson. “Detainees are further allowed to make free calls to an ICE-approved list of free legal service providers for the purpose of obtaining initial legal representation. Because these legal calls are unmonitored and unrecorded, certain prohibited activities, to include three-way calling and call forwarding, are strictly prohibited.”
The statement continues, “Pro bono organizations found to be violating these rules may be removed from the platform. 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.”
Freedom for Immigrants is now asking for donations to pay for phone calls direct to its free number until the hotline is restored. The hotline was first restricted to Florida facilities in 2018, something the group has also been fighting with letters signed by members of Congress, and the Aug. 7 shut down makes the resource entirely unoperational. “It is clear that these post hoc rationalizations from ICE are a pretext for violating our First Amendment rights,” reads the new letter of support in response to ICE’s pro bono system audit.
With its detention center, deportation and immigration courtroom storylines, OITNB aimed its spotlight on the plight facing detainees. Unlike in prison, detainees do not have a right to a lawyer for their immigration hearings. They can’t make a phone call until money has been added to their account, but many are shipped around the country and detained without family or loved ones knowing their location. Inmate Blanca Flores (Gómez), who was sent to the detention center in the previous season’s finale, warns returning character Maritza (Guerrero) in the beginning of the final season that detention is worse than prison and that the ICE agents are worse than the prison guards.
Production on the final season began last summer and was plotted six months prior, which is when the OITNB writers visited a detention center in Adelanto, California. Since then, the crisis at the border has intensified and amplified news coverage has further exposed the inhumane conditions at ICE-run facilities.
“When they went it wasn’t as disgusting as it is now. Maybe you didn’t see 158 people in a room that only fits 50,” Guerrero, an activist whose parents were deported when she was 14, told THR when speaking about the final season. “I hope this brings some light to that and that people can have a clear understanding of what the immigration system looks like in this country, acknowledge it is broken and know that they have a huge responsibility in helping to fix it.”
Gómez, also an activist in immigration reform, had told THR about the final season: “What we did with season seven is going to be more of a source of information for many people than the news. You can escape the news, but not your favorite show.”
Freedom for Immigrants, which is devoted to abolishing immigration detention, is one of the eight nonprofits that was featured in the criminal justice reform fund that launched in conjunction with the final season of OITNB. The Poussey Washington Fund, which takes its name from the character formerly played by Samira Wiley, is an initiative that supports advocacy groups that focus on protecting immigrant rights, ending mass incarceration and supporting women who are affected by the prison industrial complex. The fund has so far raised more than $250,000.
“It is our legacy,” Kohan told THR about the fund ahead of its launch in an oral history about the series and its powerful final season. “We hope the cultural impact of Orange is empathy and recognition of the humanity of the other, of people who aren’t familiar to you; of broadening opinions and feelings and opening up empathy.”
Aug. 26 6:40 a.m. Updated with ICE statement.
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