The United States operates the largest immigration detention system in the world. More than 50,000 immigrants are detained every day in county jails and for-profit prisons that contract with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) — at great human cost, and at a cost to taxpayers of $3 billion per year. The current administration has drastically expanded the system, establishing over 20 new detention centers (17,000 more people per day). Christina Fialho, an Ashoka Fellow since 2016 and co-founder of Freedom for Immigrants, is working not only to stop this expansion, but to end immigration detention altogether. Ashoka’s Lorena García Durán caught up with her to learn more.
You co-founded Freedom for Immigrants eight years ago with Christina Mansfield. What was the main goal you set out to achieve?
We want to build a country where no person is imprisoned for crossing a border. Freedom for Immigrants is working to achieve this goal through two main strategies. First, we’ve built a network of 4,500 volunteers that is a consistent watchdog inside this system. We started by building the first visitation program in California. Now volunteers in our network visit people in 69 immigrant prisons in nearly 30 states every week. Second, we launched a community-based alternative to free over 250 people by paying their immigration bonds. Once they are released, we connect them to housing, lawyers, transportation, and mental health services — and we do it all for only $17 per person per day, far less than the government pays to detain people (roughly $165 per person per day).
We are proving that our strategy works. Freedom for Immigrants drafted and co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act — composed of the first statewide bills in the country to stop detention expansion and give the state attorney general oversight powers. These bills passed in California — a state that used to detain a quarter of all people in immigration detention. Since Dignity Not Detention went into effect, seven municipalities ended their ICE contracts. We then worked in a statewide coalition of immigrant rights groups to pass another bill to phase out private prisons in California. Together, we are proving that abolition is possible in the 5th largest economy in the world.
You talk a lot about the importance of creativity and risk taking in the face of obstacles. What are some obstacles you’ve overcome along the way?
Since 2013, we’ve faced “a litany of retaliatory acts by DHS in response to our public advocacy,” as Judge Andre Birotte Jr. explained in his recent court ruling granting us a preliminary injunction against ICE. We’ve had over a dozen of our affiliated visitation programs suspended when we’ve published articles or spoken out in favor of a new system. When we worked with Orange Is The New Black to dramatize the reality of detention, our national hotline was terminated. Private prison companies have muzzled us for reporting sexual assault in detention, and I was personally barred from visiting at certain detention facilities. However, we have successfully moved the work forward through creative persistence, community mobilization, and legal action when necessary.
Speaking of obstacles, ICE just ended all social visitation in response to COVID-19. How is Freedom for Immigrants responding?
If ICE is truly serious about ensuring the health and wellbeing of people in its custody, the agency would release immigrants, beginning with vulnerable populations. Other countries like Spain and Iran are releasing people in response to Covid-19. In fact, Spain’s Interior Ministry has begun a gradual release of people from immigration detention whose deportation cannot be effected before March 29. Freedom for Immigrants has launched an interactive map that tracks ICE response to Covid-19, and we have trained our national hotline volunteers to respond to medical negligence.
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Read the rest of Lorena García Durán‘s interview of Christina Fialho at the above link.
In my experience, there are a few cases where ICE could show on an individualized basis that temporary detention is necessary to protect the public or insure appearance. But, such cases would be the “exception to the rule,” a very small percentage of today’s “New American Gulag” population.
As this article points out, in most cases government grants to enable community placements and legal representation actually would be much cheaper than today’s wasteful funding of the Gulag.
Unlike the Gulag, it also would promote due process, fundamental fairness, best practices, docket efficiency, and most important, maximize the chances of fair results.
Under the Trump regime, the cruel, costly, and counterproductive Gulag has expanded as a means of punishing, coercing, dehumanizing, and deterring those asserting legal rights, particularly the right to apply for asylum and mandatory protections like withholding of removal and protection under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”).
It also is used by the regime to hinder the statutory and constitutional right to counsel and to promote biased results. Consequently, individuals entitled to relief and protection under our laws are instead railroaded out of the country by judges employed by the regime who have been instructed to disregard migrants’ rights and follow unethical and legally incorrect “precedents” intentionally misconstruing the law to make release from detention unnecessarily difficult and to promote unjust removals.
In other words, a systemic “Due Process Disaster” and a national disgrace.
Thanks to Christina and her team at Freedom for Immigrants for their courageous efforts to stand up to tyranny and defend due process. You certainly are brave front line fighters for the New Due Process Army!
Due Process Forever. The New American Gulag Never!