Advocates from an immigrant rights organization in California are suing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security for shutting down a toll-free hotline that allowed immigrants in detention centers to report concerns about custody conditions after it was featured on the Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black.”
Christina Fialho, an attorney and the executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, said the group had worked with the show "to provide an accurate portrayal of life inside immigration detention."
"ICE shut down our hotline because we drew attention to the inhumanity of immigration detention," she said in a press release Tuesday. "It is only the latest in a long pattern of retaliation against Freedom for Immigrants. Today, we have said no more."
The Freedom for Immigrants’ National Immigration Detention Hotline had been an available resource to people in immigration detention since 2013. The organization claims ICE closed it down on Aug. 7, about two weeks after the premiere of the last season of "Orange Is the New Black."
The hotline was featured in various episodes. After two longtime characters, Blanca and Maritza, end up in deportation proceedings, they learn that immigrants don’t have the right to a free phone call after they are detained. Without access to money, both characters learn about the Freedom for Immigrants hotline and start passing out the number to others in the facility.
The legal complaint alleges immigration authorities terminated the hotline after it gathered "attention to the physical and verbal abuse of detained persons, as well as ICE’s failure to ensure the provision of necessary medical treatments."
Freedom for Immigrants is now seeking to declare the agency's actions "unconstitutional" and reinstate the hotline.
Moez Kaba, a partner at Hueston Hennigan and the lead counsel of the group in the lawsuit, argues that ICE's shutdown of the hotline counts as a violation of the organization's First Amendment rights "to speak freely and the rights of detained immigrants to speak" with Freedom for Immigrants (FFI).
“We filed this lawsuit on behalf of FFI in order to protect these core First Amendment rights, and to reinstate an important lifeline for persons held in immigrant detention,” he said.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told NBC News the agency does not comment on pending litigation. However, he said the hotline had been removed last year from a list of pro bono legal service providers that immigrants can call free to seek legal help because the organization was found to be violating the agency's telephone rules.
The line was not monitored or recorded so immigrants could confidentially speak with lawyers, Cox said, but he claims the group was using the hotline for three-way calling to connect detainees to family.
The hotline received 600 to 14,500 monthly calls, according to the lawsuit. It was limited to use at detention facilities in Florida in 2018 and was shut down entirely in August, the group claims.
The complaint claims the hotline was also useful for immigrants to remain in contact with line operators as they were transferred across facilities, especially in areas where they didn’t have family or friends nearby.
“We stand with Freedom for Immigrants in their important work and their efforts to restore the hotline through this lawsuit,” said Vicci Martinez and Emily Tarver, actors of "Orange Is the New Black," who wrote a letter in August on behalf of over 120 organizations and five other cast members on the show calling for the restoration of the hotline.