4. ICE Operates Secret Detention and Courts

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Agents of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are holding thousands of US residents in unlisted and unmarked subfield offices and deporting tens of thousands in secret court hearings.

“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 the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of State and Local Coordination, at a conference of police and sheriffs in August 2008.

Student Researchers:

  • Nicole Fletcher and Amanda Olson (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator:

  • Ronald Lopez (Sonoma State University)

People are held in a vast network of more than three hundred detention facilities, located in nearly every state in the country. Only a few of these facilities are under the full operational control of ICE—the majority are jails under the control of state and local governments that subcontract with ICE to provide detention bed space. However, ICE has created a network of secret jails designed for confining individuals in transit. These 186 unlisted and unmarked subfield offices are not subject to ICE detention standards, lacking showers, beds, drinking water, soap, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, mail, attorneys, or legal information. Many of these subfield offices are 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.

In addition there is a complete lack of a real-time database tracking people in ICE custody, meaning that ICE has created a network of secret jails designed for confining individuals in transit that literally make people disappear. Immigrant detainees can be transferred away from their attorneys at any point in their immigration proceedings, and often are. Detainees can be literally “lost” by their attorneys and family members for days or even weeks after being transferred.

US residents who were held in Southern California suboffice B-18—up to one hundred on any given day—were actually in a revolving stockroom that would shuttle the same people briefly to the local jails, sometimes from 1 to 5 a.m., 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 were moved. At times, the B-18 occupants were left overnight, the frigid onslaught of forced air and lack of mattresses or bedding making sleep near impossible.

As one attorney who represents immigration detainees explained, “The transfers are devastating—absolutely devastating. [The detainees] are loaded onto a plane in the middle of the night. They have no idea where they are, no idea what [US] state they are in. I cannot overemphasize the psychological trauma to these people. What it does to their family members cannot be fully captured either. I have taken calls from seriously hysterical family members—incredibly traumatized people—sobbing on the phone, crying out, ‘I don’t know where my son or husband is!’”

ICE agents regularly impersonate civilians—Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors, insurance agents, religious workers—in order to arrest longtime US residents who have no criminal history. Guatemalans in the Boston area are seeing spies infiltrating factories, buses with tinted windows taking away unidentifiable co-workers, and men with guns grabbing their neighbors. During the summer of 2009, a woman came to the office of Marina Lowe, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Salt Lake City, saying she believed that ICE agents dressing as Mormon missionaries had been to her house. Lowe’s client noticed that the missionaries had lacked the black name tags she’d seen others wear, and had behaved in other ways inconsistent with missionary protocol, including entering her home while her husband was absent. After she confirmed that he lived there, they left. The next day, ICE agents arrived and arrested her husband. In response to a question about whether it was consistent with government policy for ICE agents to impersonate religious workers, an anonymously written ICE e-mail explained that impersonating religious officials is part of “ruse operations” and justified this as a “tool that enhances officer safety.”

You don’t have to go to Iraq or North Korea to find secret courts. Detention centers across the country are restricting public access to immigration courts. The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), an agency in the Department of Justice charged with managing immigration courts, reported that its judges decided 134,117 deportation cases in 2008, of which 48 percent were for detainees. The individuals facing deportation hearings in these remote sites—far from their families, indigent, and without attorneys—are the most legally fragile population in the country.

Mark Soukup, supervisory detention and deportation officer in Eloy, Arizona, explained that ICE required a background check for anyone entering the immigration courts at Eloy, for which one would need to submit in writing, two weeks in advance, one’s name, date of birth, Social Security number, home address, and the particular hearing one wanted to attend. “The problem is that anyone with a felony or misdemeanor conviction in the last five years can be prohibited to come in for security reasons,” Soukup said.

Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, found the two-week prescreening policy unacceptable: “It is critical that the public and press have access to immigration proceedings to ensure that the proceedings are conducted fairly and consistent with due process principles. It is absolutely unlawful for the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to place unreasonable restrictions on access to immigration court.”

Update by Jacqueline Stevens

I have been writing for the Nation magazine, as well as on my blog States Without Nations, about unlawful and largely secret detention and removal operations by agencies within the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice (DOJ). My research on US citizens in ICE custody has been reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Charlotte Observer, CNN (online), the Huffington Post, and Mother Jones, among other publications, and I have been interviewed for National Public Radio’s Latino USA, Public Radio International’s The World, WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, Democracy Now!, and the Henry Raines Show in Tampa Bay, Florida.

My articles have sparked some responses among local activists as well as journalists. For instance, in January an immigrant rights group in Grand Junction, Colorado, paid a visit to an address from a list of subfield offices I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In a memorandum, the group wrote that the building they located was “in the industrial section of Grand Junction [and] is non-descript with no signs identifying it as government office or ICE facility.” (An agent said the absence of a sign was because of budget cuts.) For more on this, see http://stateswithoutnations.blogspot.com/2010/01/neighbors-visit-ice-office- in-grand.html.

One policy consequence of investigations into ICE detaining and deporting US citizens appears to be a November 2009 policy requiring agents to report claims of US citizenship to a special ICE email address. I submitted a FOIA request for this e-mail correspondence and was informed of four thousand pages of documents. I have recently received the first hundred pages and am appealing redactions. Clearly ICE’s detention of US citizens continues to be a problem.

I am presently conducting research on unlawful actions taken by immigration judges. This research has proven difficult because of retaliation against me by top ICE public affairs officers Kelly Nantel and Brian Hale—they unlawfully ordered agents to block my access to ICE facilities around the country. In April, a DHS-contracted guard in Atlanta assaulted me pursuant to an order from William Cassidy, the immigration judge who deported a US citizen. (While I was in a waiting area, Mr. Cassidy told a guard to remove me from the federal building.) I have filed a misconduct complaint; in response Mr. Cassidy’s cronies at the EOIR are not answering questions—documents I have received indicate a cover-up campaign is underway.


Jacqueline Stevens, “America’s Secret Ice Castles,” Nation, January 4, 2010, http://www.thenation.com/doc20100104/stevens.

Jacqueline Stevens, “ICE Agents’ Ruse Operations,” Nation, December 17, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/article/ice-agents-ruse-operations.

Jacqueline Stevens, “Secret Courts Exploit Immigrants,” Nation, June 16, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/article/secret-courts-exploit-immigrants.

Human Rights Watch, “Locked Up Far Away, The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States,” December 2, 2009, www.hrw.org/node/86789.

More information on these and related topics: