THE BLOG
11/27/2013 03:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

How ICE's Privacy Standards Hurt Immigration Reform

Have you ever wondered why you don't know more about the detention of 34,000 immigrants every day? The answer lies in the "privacy standards" authored by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ICE's "privacy standards" are included in ICE's Performance-Based National Detention Standards of 2011. The standards are not legally enforceable. Furthermore, ICE often relies on these standards only when it is in the agency's best interest. For example, ICE Standard 5.1 reads, "A detainee may not act as a reporter." This guideline explains why, earlier this year, six DREAMers were placed in solitary confinement at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona after they interviewed and collected stories from people in detention. The bottom line is that the American public knows very little about immigration detention because ICE actively prevents information about detention conditions and abuse from making headlines.

ICE's "privacy standards" also were used to suspend three community visitation programs affiliated with my organization, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) in July. ICE suspended the programs less than 48 hours after I wrote a blog post for The Huffington Post that was critical of the immigration detention system. Amid concerns that ICE had violated the First Amendment rights of nearly 130 visitor volunteers in the greater Los Angeles area, the ACLU of Southern California questioned the legality of the suspension. The ACLU emphasized that ICE cannot condition the continued existence of the visitation programs on its members giving up their right to free speech. ICE responded claiming that my blog post violated the agency's privacy standards, even though I did not mention any person in detention or any ICE officer by name.

Although the visitation programs have been reinstated, ICE continues to frustrate community efforts to make public the profit-driven and inhumane practice of immigration detention. For example, as a California attorney, I should be permitted to meet with prospective clients as clearly indicated in ICE's standards. However, in August 2013, ICE and its private prison contractor GEO Group prohibited me from conducting a legal consultation with a person in immigration detention at the Adelanto Detention Center, near Los Angeles, California, after I participated in a peaceful community vigil outside the facility protesting the suspension of the visitation programs. Unfortunately, this retaliatory action is simply one of a number of instances where ICE has violated its own standards.

This week, the Detention Watch Network (DWN) released a report documenting other violations of ICE's standards. The report states that immigrants in detention are denied adequate medical and mental health care, served maggot- and worm-infested food, and denied access to legal aid and outdoor recreation. According to DWN, when one psychiatrist formerly on staff at Adelanto reported standard violations to ICE pursuant to its internal Whistleblower Policy, ICE never informed the psychiatrist of the results of any subsequent investigation. The crux of the problem is that there is limited public accountability in the immigration detention system. Therefore, ICE can thwart the standards meant to protect people in detention and silence its critics through the "privacy standards."

Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of this government-enforced silence is that it prevents our country from having an honest discussion on immigration reform. Detained immigrants include victims of human trafficking, asylum seekers, and legal permanent residents with longstanding community ties; their voices and perspectives remain unheard.

ICE must stop using its "privacy standards" as a shield to prevent people from speaking out. Americans deserve the truth about what's going on in our backyards, especially as the fate of millions hangs in the balance while Congress continues to debate immigration reform. We need to make informed decisions, and in order to do that, we need the right to speak freely about our government's conduct. Otherwise, what good is our First Amendment?