Immigration and Customs Enforcement is prohibiting volunteer visitors at three California detention centers – and a blogger claims they are doing so because she criticized the agency.
Immigration advocates say the move to suspend volunteer visitation programs at the facilities – in Santa Ana, Irvine and Adelanto – was an attempt to silence blogger Christina Fialho, who is co-founder of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement.
Fialho wrote about conditions for transgender detainees at the Santa Ana Jail for the Huffington Post.
But an ICE spokeswoman said some members of the visitation groups bypassed standards to protect the detainees' privacy – so the agency is reviewing the visitation program to ensure their privacy.
In a conversation with an ICE official, Fialho said she was told that her blogging transformed her into a media representative and she would need to give the agency advanced notice if she planned to continue to write for the website.
"This is really a First Amendment issue," Fialho said. "We feel that volunteer visitors play an essential role to support people in immigration detention, to support their families, and when we see abuses it is our duty as Americans to speak up and try to rectify a situation."
What immigration officials appear to see as an issue of media access is viewed by Fialho and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California as an issue of free speech.
The ACLU wrote a letter Tuesday denouncing the suspension of the programs as an apparent act of retaliation after ICE officials reviewed Fialho's blog post and comments made by volunteers on their Facebook pages.
More than 130 volunteers have been trained by Fialho's network to reach out to immigrant detainees at the three Southern California detention sites and help connect them with their families. The network assists detainees in 28 locations across the country.
On July 22, Fialho wrote for the Huffington Post blog that staff working in a specialized custody unit of the Santa Ana Jail for gay and transgender detainees has not received sufficient training.