In the seventh and final season of Orange is the New Black, which was released by Netflix last month, detained immigrants at the fictional Litchfield women’s prison in upstate New York are seen passing around a phone number on a piece of paper. The number is a hotline run by Freedom for Immigrants—a real group, with a real hotline for detainees to get legal assistance, because there’s no right to free counsel for people in immigration proceedings.
But in a twist that could have come straight from the TV drama, Freedom for Immigrants claims ICE blocked detainees from using its phone number this month—just two weeks after the release of the series. The advocacy group sent a cease and desist letter to ICE and its phone contractor asking it to restore the phone number, and said the shutdown is deeply suspicious.
“I think it would be a stretch of the imagination to believe the shutdown of our hotline is motivated by anything that ICE’s desire to silence one of its loudest critics,” alleged Christina Fialho, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles who is co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants.
The producers of Orange is the New Black also sent a letter signed by dozens of state and national organizations and members of Congress including New York’s Nydia Velasquez and Jerry Nadler.
The hotline isn’t a 1-800 number, because those don’t work from ICE detention centers. Instead, it’s a four-digit pro bono extension detainees can call for free. Fialho said it was first created in 2013 with Talton Communications, which has a phone contract with ICE.
“Talton Communications make a profit off of high phone call rates which is why people are not able to afford to connect with their families and attorneys,” she explained.
Gothamist has reached out to ICE and to Talton Communications for comment and has yet to hear back.
Freedom for Immigrants ran three different national hotlines over the years, based at different ICE field offices. Fialho said two were canceled in 2017 and 2018 after her group protested conditions at detention centers in Bristol, Massachusetts and Costa County, California.
She said the third and last hotline, operated out of ICE’s Miami field office, only worked at detention centers in Florida until it was shut down on August 7th. It was a national hotline until last October, when Freedom for Immigrants complained about the shutdown of its visitation program at a detention center in California.
The cease and desist letter, which was sent to ICE and Talton Communications on Thursday, notes that Freedom for Immigrants and its hotline were written about in multiple media outlets after appearing in Orange is the New Black.
“Being featured in OITNB brought massive attention to the organization’s work regarding abusive and neglectful conditions in immigration detention centers,” the letter states. “And for this, we are being punished by our government.”
It also refers to a character in the series who warns other detainees to be careful about using the hotline because, “Apparently as soon as Big Brother figures out you’re using the hotline, they shut it down.”
The letter calls the suspension of the Freedom for Immigrants hotline extension an “impermissible retaliation to the organization’s First Amendment-protected expression” and that its termination creates the appearance that ICE is trying to silence critics. The letter could be the first step in a lawsuit if the phone line is not restored.
According to Freedom for Immigrants, ICE explained why the hotline was blocked in an email this month. It stated that all pro bono extensions not included on a list provided to detainees by the Department of Justice had been turned off.
According to a 2016 memo on pro bono phone lines, detainees are allowed to make free calls to a list of free legal service providers “for the purpose of obtaining initial legal representation, to consular officials, to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and to the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) Joint Intake Center (JIC).”
The American Bar Association has a free extension, and a spokesman said it has not been blocked.
Freedom for Immigrants said it’s raising money now for its regular phone number detainees and family members can call for free at 209-7573. “We put money on accounts of every immigration detention facility so that when people in detention pick up the phone and call they can reach us at no cost to them,” said Fialho.
In New York City, the Legal Aid Society runs something similar. It accepts free calls from detainees on Wednesdays from 1pm-5pm at 212-577-3456 and accepts collect calls.