The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is holding an untold number of people in secretively maintained detention facilities all over the United States. That’s according to an explosive report that’s the cover story of the latest issue of The Nation magazine. They also report that ICE agents regularly impersonate civilians and rely on other illegal tricks to arrest longtime US residents who have no criminal history. We speak with the author of the two-part investigation, Jacqueline Stevens. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, is holding an untold number of people in secret detention facilities all over the United States. That’s according to an explosive report that’s the cover story of the latest issue of The Nation magazine.
In addition to its publicly listed field offices and detention sites, ICE is holding people in 186 unlisted and unmarked spaces known as sub-field offices. Many of the offices are hidden in suburban office parks or commercial spaces revealing no information about their ICE tenants. According the report in The Nation, they are mainly used to house individuals in transfer and are not subject to the basic standards applied to ICE detainees.
The Nation is also reporting that ICE agents regularly impersonate civilians and rely on other illegal tricks to arrest longtime US residents who have no criminal history. ICE agents have posed as Occupational Safety and Health inspectors, insurance agents, and even religious workers.
AMY GOODMAN: We invited ICE to respond to the allegations, but they refused to comment on any aspect of The Nation's investigation. In a telephone call with Democracy Now!, a spokesperson from ICE's Office of Public Affairs simply described the articles as, quote, "conspiratorial nonsense" and "fiction."
For more on this story, we’re joined here in New York by the author of this two-part investigation, Jacqueline Stevens. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a partial list of the sub-field offices. Her articles are available at thenation.com, the latest issue of The Nation magazine, as well. They’re called "America’s Secret ICE Castles" and "ICE Agents Ruse Operations." Jacqueline Stevens is a professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And her new book is called States Without Nations: Citizenship for Mortals.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Explain exactly what you found.
JACQUELINE STEVENS: OK. So, I found that there are 186 ICE sub-field offices that are scattered around the country and that are designed, according to ICE’s own reports by Dr. Dora Schriro, to hold people on a temporary basis, typically for no more than sixteen hours. And the problem with these is that they’re not marked, they’re not — information about their whereabouts is not publicly available, and there’s no accountability for the treatment of people who are held in those facilities.
I am not making any claims about a conspiracy. I’m not making any claims about the intentions behind, you know, not having these offices marked or the information publicly available, so that’s a very surprising claim on their part. I’m simply noting that, according to their own records, there are 186 sub-field offices, and their locations are not publicly available.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And were you able to get a sense of the capacity, in terms of the numbers of people that they’re holding, and for how long they end up actually being held?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: Yeah. Well, their own report says that about 910 people a day are held in these facilities, and that amounts to about 340,000 people a year who are going through these facilities. And that’s their data. So I have no idea why they’re claiming that that’s not true. I mean, that’s their report.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how immigrants are picked up.
JACQUELINE STEVENS: So, there’s a number of ways that immigrants can be picked up. The majority of people are picked up through something called a Criminal Alien Program. And that might suggest that most of the people being picked up are criminal aliens, but again, according to ICE’s own statistics, among the 48 percent of people who are picked up through the Criminal Alien Program, 57 percent are not criminals. And this is — the number has actually gone up. So, in 2008, 53 percent of the people who were picked up through the Criminal Alien Program were not criminals. These Criminal Alien Program offices are typically in these ICE sub-field locations.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when they say Criminal Alien Program, they’re talking about people who may have been previously convicted of a crime, who they were trying to deport — to pick up and deport? Or are they talking about people who are actually wanted criminals?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: So, it’s typically people who are already booked in jails or in prisons and there’s some indication that they are foreign-born. And those records then come to the attention of the Criminal Alien Program. So they might not even be charged with anything. Their arrests could be pretenses for bringing them into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the part of local law enforcement. And that’s a pattern that has occurred and been noted frequently in the South, where local police will pick people up on pretextual violations, not charge them with crimes, and bring them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices through the Criminal Alien Program.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stevens, you quote James Pendergraph, an ICE official, speaking at a conference last year, saying, “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but” you know — “you think he’s illegal, we can make [him] disappear.”
JACQUELINE STEVENS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What is he talking about?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: So he’s talking about the facilities that ICE makes available through not just these sub-field offices — and just to be clear, you know, the vast majority of detainees who are held are not held on a long-term basis in these sub-field offices. They are held in about 300 jails and ICE-run detention facilities across the country. And so, what he’s talking about is the ability of ICE to distribute people among these facilities, and the typical system that governs the organization of detainee records would mean that it would be very difficult for anybody to locate the whereabouts of the people they pick up.
AMY GOODMAN: Are family members notified when someone is arrested?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: No, they’re not notified. And not only are they not notified, even when they make very diligent efforts to locate their relatives, they meet obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. And, you know, the phones don’t get answered. When they do get answered, people are non-responsive.
AMY GOODMAN: So they don’t know if they’ve been killed on the street or something.
JACQUELINE STEVENS: No, no, no, there’s no information that’s made available. And ICE doesn’t dispute that. ICE claims that it’s not their position to find — you know, to locate people, that it’s not their responsibility to even notify attorneys when their clients are transferred from one facility to another facility. They’re on record stating that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the whole issue of how many of these people are picked up, the question of ICE agents impersonating, in some cases, Mormon missionaries, you write about, or insurance agents. Could you — how does that work?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: OK. So, one consequence of the detention operations and the removal operations moving away from these big workplace raids — that is something that the Obama administration has, you know, dedicated itself to — has been more surreptitious operations, and an increase in those. I mean, these have been going on under the Bush administration, as well, but there’s an impression that there’s been a shift to these more surreptitious operations for targeting people.
And among the operations that I encountered, and ICE calls these “ruse operations” — and just to be clear, under our law, ruse operations, for the most part, are legal. It is legal for, you know, federal agents to impersonate civilians for the purpose of tricking people who they suspect have arrest warrants and so forth in obtaining their custody.
It is not legal for federal agents to impersonate religious workers. And a spokesperson for the ACLU explained why, and I, you know, quote her in the article, but it’s a pretty obvious principle. If religious workers are suspected of being federal agents, then that makes it very difficult for them to fulfill their duties. If it’s part of the Mormon practice to proselytize and a community is suspecting Mormons of being federal agents, then they’ll be hostile to them. And that will, you know, constrict their ability to practice their religion. So that is one operation that ICE has been reported as doing.
The federal government’s response to this was really shocking to me. I sent them a question, and I said, “Is it consistent with ICE policy for ICE agents to impersonate religious workers?” And I would have expected a flat-out “no.” But instead, they explained exactly why and how it was consistent for ICE agents to impersonate religious workers.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And just to be clear, this would be a situation where supposed Mormon missionaries are knocking on doors trying to find out who lives in a particular house or not?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: Right. Well, it’s actually more targeted than that, typically. The ICE agents will suspect that a particular individual who has an outstanding warrant lives in a certain address and want to ascertain the time that that person will be there for purposes of effecting an arrest. And so, you know, they’ll go to any means necessary to try to obtain that information, including impersonating Mormon missionaries.
AMY GOODMAN: Has policy under Obama improved over policy over President Bush?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: I wish I could say yes. I think that there are a lot of people who are hopeful, and, you know, there’s some lip service to making certain changes on the ground. I haven’t seen any positive changes, you know, overall, that would suggest that there’s —-
AMY GOODMAN: Has it become worse?
JACQUELINE STEVENS: I think in some respects. You know, the increase in these kinds of operations would suggest that that’s worse, because as different people have observed, that drives this activity underground. It makes it less available publicly for people to scrutinize what they’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Raul Grijalva, as co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, your response to this stunning exposé in The Nation magazine?
I thought he was -—
REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: — response is gratitude for exposing it. We have been — in my role and my membership with the Hispanic Caucus, been meeting with Homeland Security specifically about detention problems: lack of medical services, lack of access to any legal representation, family contact, the conditions in general, the huge growth in it. And now you add this layer of the 186 sub-field stations that are really under no public knowledge or notification. There’s — whatever minimal rule of law is applicable, it’s not applicable there. Yeah, this is something that not only the Hispanic Caucus, but certainly the Progressive Caucus, are going to need to aggressively follow up on and demand some real transparency and some real information about that.
It’s disturbing for many reasons. But, you know, here — a good example, the impersonating religious workers. Right now in Arizona, we have religious workers that are being prosecuted for aiding and abetting “illegals,” as they say, for putting water out in the desert so they won’t die. They are being prosecuted by the federal government for aiding and abetting. And at the same time, the irony is that now we have ICE agents impersonating religious workers in order to be able to apprehend people. That’s the kind of not only inconsistency, but hypocrisy, that worries us.
When we filed our bill for immigration reform in the House this — on the 16th of December, one of the areas was the whole area of detention that we added to this bill, about the fact that it had to be — there had to be judicial discretion, there had to be transparency, and there had to be a human contact in following the rules of law and the rules of detention of this country. And obviously these 196 don’t fall under even that minimal standard. And we need to do — we need to be aggressive about finding out what is really going on with this.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Congressman Grijalva, what about this issue of how things have changed in terms of immigration enforcement under the Obama administration, the less of an emphasis on these massive workplace raids, but increases —- attempts at other means of increasing deportations?
REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: No, I -— you know, it’s like a — they’re movable parts, in the sense that until, you know, this Congress and this administration get very serious about reforming immigration, dealing with the human aspect of immigration, making that process just, making the legal process under the rule of law, we can say, on one hand, that we are deemphasizing the raids and, on the other hand, find other mechanisms and other methods and other strategies to basically accomplish the same end. And so, until we deal with the fundamental root cause of all this, you know, agencies, whether it’s Homeland Security or this administration or Congress, can continue to shuffle the cards, but, you know, the game has not changed entirely.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this issue. Congressman Raul Grijalva, thanks for being with us, Democrat from Arizona, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And Jacqueline Stevens, professor at UC Santa Barbara and the author of an investigation on secret ICE facilities published in The Nation magazine. We’ll link to that report. Her new book is called States Without Nations: Citizenship for Mortals.