ICE’s Secret Prisons in Suburbia

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The next time you drive by a run-of-the-mill suburban office park or nondescript downtown commercial building, pay attention: You might just have passed one of our nation’s secret immigration detention centers. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confines people in 186 under-the-radar “subfield offices,” reports The Nation (Jan. 4, 2010).

These prisons are not subject to ICE detention standards since they are designed for confining people in transit, with no beds or showers, often for several hours and over the course of several days (at night detainees are sometimes ferried back and forth to local jails). Yet they are the entry point of ICE’s system, used for 84 percent of all book-ins.

Nation writer Jacqueline Stevens tried to locate the detention centers after seeing them mentioned in an October 2009 Department of Homeland Security report. ICE initially wouldn’t reveal the addresses, but Stevens obtained a partial list from an ICE officer and shared it with immigrant advocates in human rights and civil rights organizations, “whose reactions ranged from perplexity to outrage,” she writes. (ICE later gave her a larger but still incomplete list.)

Alison Parker, director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program, believes the failure to disclose the centers’ locations violates the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States has signed.

Ahilan Arulanantham, director of Immigrants’ Rights and National Security for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, describes a Los Angeles subfield office known by the Kafkaesque moniker B-18, hidden away in the storage area of a large federal building. “What this breeds, not surprisingly,” he tells The Nation, “is a whole host of problems concerning access to phones, relatives, and counsel.”

B-18 had so many problems that it ended up being the subject of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center against Homeland Security and ICE officials. The parties settled last September, though ICE hasn’t exactly rushed toward transparency since then.

Many of the centers still lack prominent signage, even in commercial buildings where businesses are well marked. One attorney who had a client held in a subfield office said the operations were “akin to extraordinary renditions within the United States.”

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