Huddled in the prison kitchen’s walk-in freezer, Maritza worried that she would be the next to disappear.
The fictional character played by Diane Guerrero on the seventh season of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” had an immigration hearing coming up, but like many immigrants, she didn’t have an attorney. How could she stop her own deportation without help? In the freezer’s secrecy, her incarcerated friends told her not to worry: They had found a group online, Freedom for Immigrants, offering a hotline for detainees in need of a free lawyer to call.
“But you have to be careful though,” their friend Gloria told Maritza. “Apparently, if they figure out that you’re using the hotline, Big Brother shuts it down.”
This month, less than two weeks after the seventh season of the show premiered, Gloria’s warning has become reality: Real-life U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shut down the real-life Freedom for Immigrants hotline intended for immigrants who can’t afford attorneys, the group said Friday.
To the nonprofit organization, the timing is not a coincidence.
“I think it would be a stretch of the imagination to believe the shut down of our hotline is motivated by anything but ICE’s desire to silence one of its loudest critics,” Cynthia Galaz, Freedom for Immigrants’ national hotline director, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
According to the organization, ICE blocked detainees from being able to call the hotline on Aug. 7 following the release of “Orange Is the New Black” season seven, which portrays the pain of deportation, the bleak conditions of immigration detention and the lack of rights afforded to immigrants – such as the right to an attorney. On Thursday, Galaz and co-founder Christina Fialho sent a cease-and-desist letter to ICE, expressing concern that the national attention brought to the group through the show has led the government to retaliate. They argue that it amounts to a breach of the First Amendment, especially given the group and the show’s advocacy against ICE detention.
“The suspension of Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline extension is impermissible retaliation to the organization’s First Amendment-protected expression,” they wrote in the letter. “The hotline’s termination also creates the clear appearance ICE is attempting to silence critics and limit the public’s awareness of alleged abusive conditions in immigration detention.”
ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post Sunday night. But in the letter, Freedom for Immigrants says ICE told them on Aug. 15 that the hotline was blocked because it was not on an approved list maintained by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. The hotline number was originally provided by ICE in 2013, according to the letter.
ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer also told the Los Angeles Times that detainees were allowed to make free calls to legal service providers on this list, but that “pro bono organizations found to be violating these rules may be removed from the platform.”
Galaz said they have heard this same “excuse” before.
In the show, Gloria’s warning that “Big Brother” could shut down the hotline was rooted in history. As Freedom for Immigrants’ letter notes, ICE has shut down the hotline elsewhere following the organization’s public criticism of immigrant detention facilities in the past.
In 2017, the Bristol County Jail in Massachusetts asked ICE to shut down the group’s hotline for detainees there after Freedom for Immigrants wrote an op-ed in the local newspaper decrying conditions at the facility. The line was never reinstated, according to Freedom for Immigrants. Last fall, after ICE shut down an interfaith visitation program based in San Diego, Freedom for Immigrants sent ICE a letter objecting. Less than a week later, ICE shut down the group’s national hotline for legal help – everywhere except for eight facilities in Florida. ICE used the same reasoning for the shutdown then that it has reportedly used this time.
Now, the hotline is gone in Florida, too.
“Now we see life mimic art in the most destructive way,” Laura Gómez, who plays Blanca, a character in ICE custody on “OITNB,” told the Los Angeles Times. “I wish this were more of a fictional situation and we were exaggerating reality, but it’s kind of the other way around.”
The “Orange Is the New Black” producers sought the assistance of Freedom for Immigrants as they were doing research for the show’s latest story lines, featuring women in ICE custody awaiting possible deportation.
With the help of Freedom for Immigrants, the show’s writers visited the Adelanto Detention Facility in California between May 2017 and May 2018 to get a sense of what it was really like. They found a large holding room that “smells like old soup,” as executive producer Carolina Paiz described in a BuzzFeed op-ed. The women slept on “rows of bunks filling a common area, with no personal space, no items decorating their beds. No pictures. No books.”
“What shocked us was that it was no different than a maximum-security prison, except that they have less rights,” Paiz told Vulture.com in an interview. “They have no right to an attorney. They have no right to a phone call. It was the most horrifying realization for people who already have worked within that world to realize that it gets darker.”
Fialho and Galaz have said the show’s portrayal of immigration detention – and the need for their legal hotline – “could not be closer to the truth.”
In an op-ed for InStyle this summer, Fialho and Galaz described the hotline as “a lifeline to the outside world for those who cannot afford to pay for a phone call, which can cost over $10 for just 15 minutes.” Save for the numbers on the approved list of pro bono legal service providers, all of detainees’ phone calls from ICE facilities cost money.
The problem was particularly on display in the fifth episode of the latest season, “Minority Deport,” featuring the hotline.
In the episode, women wearing orange jumpsuits and chains around their waists and down to their ankles go before a judge one by one, none of them represented by attorneys. Some end up deported. One immigrant, Karla, however, read up on her rights and demands that her hearing be delayed so she could have more time to find legal counsel, a request the fictional judge granted.
Back at the detention facility, Maritza starts teaching the other women how to find it for free: She writes down Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline number down on scraps of paper, distributing them to desperate women in the room. One begged for the legal assistance so she could see her children again.
“This scene struck a strong emotional chord with us, triggering memories of the many times we have surreptitiously written our hotline number on bits of notebook paper during facility visits and watched as detained individuals tried memorizing the digits requiring no translation,” Fialho and Galaz wrote.
In the cease-and-desist letter sent to ICE, Fialho and Galaz say that if ICE does not begin allowing detainees access to the hotline within 10 days, the group will take legal action.
Seven actors and producers from “Orange Is the New Black” signed an accompanying letter of support making the same demand.