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By Kate Morrissey, The San Diego Union-Tribune – San Diego Union Tribune
SAN DIEGO – Immigration officials stopped allowing a volunteer group to visit people at a local detention facility unless its members agreed not to talk with the press or other groups about conditions inside.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that members of SOLACE, or Souls Offering Loving and Compassionate Ears, must sign the “Volunteer Code of Ethics” form to be in compliance with the agency’s detention standards. The group so far has refused, arguing that detention standards don’t require them to sign away their First Amendment rights in order to visit detainees.
“I think they’re circling the wagons to stop people from knowing what’s going on inside,” said volunteer Steve Gelb of Mission Valley. “It gives ICE more impunity.”
Beginning in 2012, SOLACE volunteers have made more than 1,450 visits to at least 800 immigrants at Otay Mesa. They tried to give detainees who don’t have anyone to visit them a feeling of humanity, emotional support and hope.
“Without SOLACE, people who are detained at Otay have very little way to communicate with the outside world,” said Angela Fujii, who coordinates the program through the First Unitarian Universalist Church. “It’s a very vulnerable population that we know is now suffering and being neglected.”
The new requirement took volunteers by surprise. They thought they had a good working relationship with ICE and had been told the agency appreciated their work.
At recent meetings, volunteers speculated that either the current political climate or critical media coverage of conditions in immigration detention facilities may have led to the change, but they could not think of a specific report that might’ve triggered the forms’ restrictive language.
The confidentiality sections of the new forms require volunteers to agree not to share information they learn inside without written permission from the warden.
“I will not engage in the delivery or discussion of facility and/or offender specific information outside the performance of my duties,” the Code of Ethics form reads. “I will have no media contact related to the services I provide or any information I gain as a result of having access to the facility, the inmate population, or facility staff.”
The volunteers worried that if a detainee told them about abuse happening at the facility, they wouldn’t be able to speak up. They also took issue with a part of the form that says they “represent” CoreCivic, the for-profit prison company that owns and operates the facility.
“It seems like we’re being put in a straight jacket,” said volunteer Kathy Smith of Scripps Ranch.
ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said that the change came from an “internal preaudit” of volunteer programs that found SOLACE was not in compliance with the standards the agency uses for its facilities, known as the Performance-Based National Detention Standards.
“Each volunteer must go through a facility orientation and agree to applicable facility rules and procedures,” Mack said. “Volunteer applicants are required to complete the code of ethics package and required dress code.”
SOLACE volunteers hadn’t signed facility forms, but they had submitted information, including social security numbers and photo IDs, for background checks when they joined the program. The detention standards do not require the facility rules to include confidentiality clauses in CoreCivic’s volunteer form.
“All religious volunteers seeking access to any of CoreCivic’s immigration facilities are required to undergo an approval process which is at the direction and discretion of our partner agencies,” said Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for CoreCivic, when asked about the forms.
To David Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, the restrictions in the forms are “unconscionable.”
“I don’t say that kind of thing lightly,” Loy said. “This is an absolutely unconstitutional attempt to stifle speech and evade accountability.”
Loy sent a letter Thursday threatening legal action if ICE doesn’t reinstate the program.
ICE is acting more and more like Trump’s little band of Brown Shirts. This makes you wonder what they feel needs to be hidden.
". . . those who claim to know the Mind of God, who will tell you what God thinks and how He will judge and condemn others—those people are the greatest of all blasphemers." Aloysius Xingu Leng Pendergast
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