Democrats call on DHS to allow free calls at ICE detention centers

Democrats call on DHS to allow free calls at ICE detention centers
© Greg Nash

Congressional Democrats on Tuesday called on the Trump administration to allow free calls at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Democrats argued in a letter to acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfPence addresses 16 new citizens at pre-Independence Day naturalization ceremony Arizona reports record number of new coronavirus cases, deaths DHS deploying new task force to protect monuments ahead of July 4 MORE and acting ICE Director Matthew Albence that free access to calls is necessary for people in detention centers to communicate with people outside as they prepare for immigration court cases. These calls, they said, are especially important after ICE suspended social and legal visits to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

“In order to effectively prepare for their immigration court cases, these detainees must communicate with people outside detention who have access to relevant evidence. For those who do have representation in their removal cases, access to meaningful and confidential phone communication with counsel is essential,” Democrats wrote in the letter first shared with The Hill. 

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The bicameral letter is led by Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats: A moment in history, use it wisely The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus MORE (D-Minn.) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinHillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources MORE (D-Ill.) and Reps. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerNadler wins Democratic primary Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Clyburn threatens to end in-person coronavirus committee hearings if Republicans won't wear masks MORE (D-N.Y.) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenFEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' MORE (D-Calif.). It is signed by an additional 27 senators and 52 representatives. 

The lawmakers noted the “crowded, unsanitary conditions” that they said put detainees and detention center staff at high risk of COVID-19 infections.

ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in a Wednesday statement that the agency began providing 520 minutes of free calls per month to detainees on April 22 at all facilities served by Talton Communications, which she said includes about 57 percent of the ICE-detained population. 

She said ICE has been negotiating with other facilities to allow the same. 

“ICE recognizes the substantial impact of curtailing personal visitation during the pandemic, and continues to facilitate communication with families through extended access to telephones, teleconferencing, video visitation and email with extended hours where possible,” Bennett said in an email. 

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There are 1,073 confirmed COVID-19 cases among detainees across ICE facilities, according to ICE data

Democrats said they “appreciate” that ICE officials told congressional staff earlier this month that they are providing 520 free minutes per month for each person in detention, but the lawmakers said the policy has not been enforced. 

“According to information received by Congress, many facilities have not provided any free minutes, some have provided fewer than 520 minutes, and others have provided detainees with 13 free, ten-minute calls per week — but prohibit detainees from carrying over unused minutes,” they wrote. 

The democrats are calling on DHS and ICE to take “immediate action” to ensure ICE facilities implement the free phone minutes policy. They also asked DHS to supply them with information regarding the implementation of the policy.

—Updated Wednesday at 1:58 p.m.