Report of ‘secret’ immigration detention centers raises rights concerns

According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Detention and Removal website, the federal agency has only one center for detention in Colorado, a privately owned facility located in Aurora. The website doesn’t mention that the agency may also be holding people at unlisted sub-field offices around Colorado.

The Nation, which broke the story last week of such sub-field offices, called them “secret” and suggested that they are “black sites” into which detainees might effectively disappear. ICE disputes the terminology.

ICE detention center, Aurora. (Katie Redding)
ICE detention center, Aurora. (Katie Redding)

The author of The Nation piece, Jacqueline Stevens, a professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of California Santa Barbara, obtained a list of 186 unlisted ICE sub-field offices used as temporary detention facilities across the country. The list included the Aurora Center run by the GEO Group, plus facilities in Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Grand Junction and Loveland, none of which appear to be listed on the ICE detention center page. The agency’s Denver Field Office is noted as the point of contact for the Colorado region.

In a story covering the opening of the ICE office in Colorado Springs three weeks ago, the Denver Post reported that there were nine ICE offices in the state. The Post did not list the locations.

According to Stevens, the system of sub-field offices creates a bureaucratic void where the laws governing processing and guaranteeing rights can be muddy or can break down, setting up a system in which detainees can “disappear” for even the most diligently searching family members and friends.

Not immediately available for response, Stevens explained her findings in a recent interview with Democracy Now.

“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. The problem with these is that they’re not marked … — information about their whereabouts is not publicly available, and there’s no accountability for the treatment of people who are held in those facilities.”

Stevens said anecdotal reports abound detailing the difficulty in locating ICE detainees. She said ICE officials have said they are not responsible for tracking the locations of the accused.

Chandra Russo of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition said that because immigration is regulated by civil law “it is in the nether realm.” She said that the absence of proper regulation surrounding the field offices leads to concerns due process problems.

Tim Counts, ICE spokesperson for the Colorado area, told the Colorado Independent that ICE was presently not responding to questions concerning the Stevens article. He added, however, that the field stations were “anything but secret.”

“Anyone who is arrested on immigrations violations is brought to one of our field offices,” Counts said. “It may be, for example, a larger office, or the one in Denver, or we have smaller sub-offices all around the country, which by the way are anything but secret.”

Counts pointed to the recent Colorado Springs field station opening ceremony covered by the Post. Local dignitaries turned out as well as members of the press. “I’m not sure how that would qualify for being a secret office,” he said.

Counts said the process followed at field stations are similar to those practiced in the booking of criminals in smaller police stations.

“[Suspected illegal immigrants] are booked just like they would be in a police station: fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed,” Counts said.

He suggested The Nation may have stretched the facts for the benefit of readers. Take the amount of time detainees are held in ICE field stations, Counts said.

“After reading The Nation article, how long do you think detainees are normally held in the field stations?” He said on average detainees are held in the facilities for two or three hours at the most before being transferred to local jails.

He said detainees are provided telephone access in all of the offices, provided the opportunity to speak with the consular officials from their home countries and given a list of free or low-cost legal assistance in the area.

Talking to Democracy Now, however, Stevens appeared to take issue with the kind of picture painted by Counts.

“ICE claims that it’s not their position … 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.”

Although calls to individual field stations on the list published by The Nation went unreturned, voice messages identified each office as an ICE facility and provided numbers where additional information on detainees might be available.

The ACLU, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network and a number of immigration lawyers were not available for comment.

“I am not making any claims about a conspiracy,” Stevens said. “I’m simply noting that, according to their own records, there are 186 sub-field offices, and their locations are not publicly available.”

Edit note: The Colorado Independent is scheduled to speak to Jacqueline Stevens today and will post additional reports on this story this week.

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