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Americas Secret Prisons Where People Vanish
America's Secret ICE Castles|
By Jacqueline Stevens
This article appeared in the January 4, 2010 edition of The Nation.
December 16, 2009
"If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we can make him disappear." Those chilling words were spoken by James Pendergraph, then executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of State and Local Coordination, at a conference of police and sheriffs in August 2008. Also present was Amnesty International's Sarnata Reynolds, who wrote about the incident in the 2009 report "Jailed Without Justice" and said in an interview, "It was almost surreal being there, particularly being someone from an organization that has worked on disappearances for decades in other countries. I couldn't believe he would say it so boldly, as though it weren't anything wrong."
ICE agents regularly impersonate civilians--OSHA inspectors, insurance agents, religious workers--in order to arrest longtime US residents who have no criminal history. Jacqueline Stevens has reported a web-exclusive companion piece on ICE agents' ruse operations.
Pendergraph knew that ICE could disappear people, because he knew that in addition to the publicly listed field offices and detention sites, ICE is also confining people in 186 unlisted and unmarked subfield offices, many in suburban office parks or commercial spaces revealing no information about their ICE tenants--nary a sign, a marked car or even a US flag. (Presumably there is a flag at the Veterans Affairs Complex in Castle Point, New York, but no one would associate it with the Criminal Alien Program ICE is running out of Building 7.) Designed for confining individuals in transit, with no beds or showers, subfield offices are not subject to ICE Detention Standards. The subfield office network was mentioned in an October report by Dora Schriro, then special adviser to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, but no locations were provided.
I obtained a partial list of the subfield offices from an ICE officer and shared it with immigrant advocates in major human and civil rights organizations, whose reactions ranged from perplexity to outrage. Andrea Black, director of Detention Watch Network (DWN), said she was aware of some of the subfield offices but not that people were held there. ICE never provided DWN a list of their locations. "This points to an overall lack of transparency and even organization on the part of ICE," said Black. ICE says temporary facilities in field or subfield offices are used for 84 percent of all book-ins. There are twenty-four listed field offices. The 186 unlisted subfield offices tend to be where local police and sheriffs have formally or informally reached out to ICE. For instance, in 2007 North Carolina had 629,947 immigrants and at least six subfield offices, compared with Massachusetts, with 913,957 immigrants and one listed field office. Not surprisingly, before joining ICE Pendergraph, a sheriff, was the Joe Arpaio of North Carolina, his official bio stating that he "spearheaded the use of the 287(g) program," legislation that empowers local police to perform immigration law enforcement functions.
A senior attorney at a civil rights organization, speaking on background, saw the list and exclaimed, "You cannot have secret detention! The public has the right to know where detention is happening."
Alison Parker, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a December comprehensive report on ICE transit policies, "Locked Up Far Away." Even she had never heard of the subfield offices and was concerned that the failure to disclose their locations violates the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a signatory. She explained that the government must provide "an impartial authority to review the lawfulness of custody. Part and parcel is the ability of somebody to find the person and to make their presence known to a court."
The challenge of being unable to find people in detention centers, documented in the Human Rights Watch report, is worsened when one does not even know where to look. The absence of a real-time database tracking people in ICE custody means ICE has created a network of secret jails. Subfield offices enter the time and date of custody after the fact, a situation ripe for errors, hinted at in the Schriro report, as well as cover-ups.
ICE refused a request for an interview, selectively responded to questions sent by e-mail and refused to identify the person authorizing the reply--another symptom of ICE thwarting transparency and hence accountability. The anonymous official provided no explanation for ICE not posting a list of subfield office locations and phone numbers or for its lack of a real-time locator database.
It is not surprising to find that, with no detention rules and being off the map spatially and otherwise, ICE agents at these locations are acting in ways that are unconscionable and unlawful. According to Ahilan Arulanantham, director of Immigrant Rights for the ACLU of Southern California, the Los Angeles subfield office called B-18 is a barely converted storage space tucked away in a large downtown federal building. "You actually walk down the sidewalk and into an underground parking lot. Then you turn right, open a big door and voilà, you're in a detention center," Arulanantham explained. Without knowing where you were going, he said, "it's not clear to me how anyone would find it. What this breeds, not surprisingly, is a whole host of problems concerning access to phones, relatives and counsel."
It's also not surprising that if you're putting people in a warehouse, the occupants become inventory. Inventory does not need showers, beds, drinking water, soap, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, mail, attorneys or legal information, and can withstand the constant blast of cold air. The US residents held in B-18, as many as 100 on any given day, were treated likewise. B-18, it turned out, was not a transfer area from point A to point B but rather an irrationally revolving stockroom that would shuttle the same people briefly to the local jails, sometimes from 1 to 5 am, and then bring them back, shackled to one another, stooped and crouching in overpacked vans. These transfers made it impossible for anyone to know their location, as there would be no notice to attorneys or relatives when people moved. At times the B-18 occupants were left overnight, the frigid onslaught of forced air and lack of mattresses or bedding defeating sleep. The hours of sitting in packed cells on benches or the concrete floor meant further physical and mental duress.
Alla Suvorova, 26, a Mission Hills, California, resident for almost six years, ended up in B-18 after she was snared in an ICE raid targeting others at a Sherman Oaks apartment building. For her, the worst part was not the dirt, the bugs flying everywhere or the clogged, stinking toilet in their common cell but the panic when ICE agents laughed at her requests to understand how long she would be held. "No one could visit; they couldn't find me. I was thinking these people are going to put me and the other people in a grinder and make sausages and sell them in the local market."
Sleep deprivation and extreme cold were among the "enhanced interrogation" techniques promoted by the Bush White House and later set aside by the Justice Department because of concerns that they amounted to torture. Although without the intent to elicit information, ICE under the Obama administration was holding people charged with a civil infraction in conditions approaching those no longer authorized for accused terrorists.