ICE Public Affairs: Rogue office in a rogue agency

Back in April, two detainee deaths at Eloy were reported as suicides.  According to the Arizona Republic, ICE said that it was "in ongoing negotiations with CCA to implement" detention standards on suicide prevention at Eloy.  You'd think these standards would be implemented before ICE started holding people there.  And you might think that CCA would not have a choice about whether to implement the standards.

So I asked the ICE Office of Public Affairs (OPA) whether the Arizona Republic had it right:  was ICE negotiating with CCA?  OPA's Barbara Gonzales and her boss, director Brian Hale, refused to answer.

On its webpage, ICE Public Affairs describes its mission this way: "With a strong commitment to transparency and candor, OPA strives at all times to maintain transparency, consistency, accuracy and credibility in the agency’s communication efforts."  Even the mission statement is a lie.

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Journalists and other researchers who follow ICE know that the Office of Public Affairs does not consider itself answerable to anyone in the agency, much less to outsiders.  Over the years, I have spoken with dozens of journalists about OPA's willingness to withhold information.  One reason they get away with it, as an AP correspondent once told me, is that reporters still want their calls returned.

Another reason is that ICE and DHS leadership let them.  This week I sent a letter to Rand Beers, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, and to John Sandweg, Acting Director of ICE, about this longstanding, unprofessional conduct in OPA.  Director Hale and his subordinates work for the public, but too often they simply refuse to answer questions.  To be fair, they are following a longstanding ICE (and INS) tradition.

Here are a few other examples, all under Hale's directorship.

Forced Sedation of Deportees: Recently I had the chance to speak to a doctor who had been contracted by ICE years ago to forcibly sedate detainees who did not want to be deported.  ICE's policy since 2008 has been that it must obtain court orders for all forcible sedations of detainees for the purpose of "removal."  I asked ICE for the titles of cases for which the agency has requested such court orders.

OPA refused to answer, despite the fact that previous OPA "talking points" on the subject (which I obtained through a FOIA request) say that this information is public.  Director Hale gave no explanation for his refusal.

Detention Statistics: This seems like an easy one.  How many of the total detained population are/were lawful residents?  This matters because many -- perhaps most -- of those detained are not simply "illegals"; on the contrary, they've been here legally, sometimes for decades.  OPA did not respond or give any reason for not responding.

Sexual Abuse in Detention: Last winter, DHS proposed regulations to prevent sexual abuse in ICE detention facilities. According to ICE records cited by DHS, there were 138 sexual abuse allegations from ICE detainees from 2010 to June 2012.  My question to OPA was: of those allegations that involved ICE staff or ICE-contracted-staff as the alleged perpetrators, how many resulted in disciplinary action?  And of those staff who were disciplined, how many continue to work in ICE detention facilities?

OPA did not respond or give any reason for not responding.

(The new DHS regulations were to be issued in November, but the shutdown has made the timeline unclear, according to Chris Daley of Just Detention International.)

Early on, this administration liked to trumpet its intention to reform the ICE detention system. Substantive detention reform, and broader immigration reform, will be impossible without transparency. And there will be no transparency until ICE and DHS leadership make the Office of Public Affairs accountable -- to the public. 

Dow, the author of American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons, teaches English at Hunter College in New York.