An immigrant rights group is suing the federal government for shutting down a popular toll-free hotline that allowed detained immigrants to report custody issues, a move the non-profit said came after the show “Orange Is the New Black” drew attention to the service in several recent episodes.
Freedom for Immigrants, a California-based organization, created the hotline in 2013 so migrants could report abuse, find resources and connect with their families while in federal custody. But days after the service was featured in the Netflix series in early August, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided to completely yank the free phone line it had provided for the service during all those years.
Immigration advocates claim the government is retaliating against them for exposing abusive and neglectful conditions at detention centers across the country.
“ICE shut down our Hotline because we drew attention to the inhumanity of immigration detention,” Christina Fialho, the group’s co-executive director, said in a statement.
The hotline, which received as many as 14,000 calls every month, was featured on “Orange Is the New Black” when two characters, inmates Blanca and Maritza, were facing deportation and didn’t have an attorney. Another character on the show, Gloria, warned Maritza in an episode to be careful.
“Apparently as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down,” she advised.
Not long after the episode aired, ICE did just that — a move the lawsuit describes as “the most perverse form of art imitating life.”
ICE did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday morning, but the agency told The Associated Press this week that Freedom for Immigrants was misusing the hotline. ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said the line was supposed to be used for migrants to find and speak with lawyers, but the nonprofit had been using it for three-way calls between detainees and family members.
Authorities had already limited the hotline last year to be used at Florida detention facilities only.
Several cast members and producers from “Orange Is the New Black” wrote a letter in August in support of the organization.
“The line’s termination undermines trust and accountability of government institutions, dissuades public service by community organizations, and further isolates vulnerable detained individuals,” they wrote. “We demand that Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline be restored to its original reach so that the organization can continue offering a free and confidential resource to detained individuals across the country.”