A coalition of advocates for immigration detainees filed a federal administrative complaint on Friday claiming that Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi have been releasing immigrants against agency policy into remote areas and unsafe conditions without resources to contact their families or arrange transportation. 

Advocates say that this practice is “causing serious harm to the well-being and safety of those being released.”

“We’ve had multiple cases — at least three cases —where a detainee wasn’t allowed to call their family. In one case, [a released individual] was missing for 3 days without being able to contact family or lawyer,” said Frances Kelley, a volunteer with one of the 17 organizations that joined in filing the complaint.

The complaint came following the Thursday release of around 80 Haitian immigrants from Jackson Correctional Facility, who were dropped off in downtown Shreveport. KTBS reported that two busses dropped off groups of men and women at the SporTran Intermodal Terminal. SporTran sources were told up to 17 more busses were coming but an ICE spokesperson did not provide more information about specific dates or times.

It isn’t clear what stage of the immigration process the released individuals are in, though it appears that some may be asylum seekers. Several women who spoke with The Lens on Friday said they were afraid to return to Haiti due to fear of violence. It also isn’t immediately apparent why this wave of releases is happening now.

The complaint was filed with the Oversight Office at the U.S Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). That office opens the complaint, and then sends it to the Office of Inspector General who has the opportunity to either retain and investigate it, or return it to the CRCL.

The complaint says that detention facilities are required to provide immigrants with “free and safe transportation to the nearest public transportation center for every individual released from detention, before the last transport from that transportation hub is scheduled for the day.” 

But advocates say that these policies are not being followed in violation of ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), established in 2011. 

The PBNDS govern every detention facility in Louisiana except River Correctional Center. It is governed by the National Detention Standards (NDS) 2019, which has similar language regarding post-release responsibilities to the PBNDS 2011.

The PBNDS standards state that facilities more than one mile from public transportation “shall transport detainees to local bus/train/subway stations prior to the time the last bus/train leaves such stations for the day.”

They also require that “prior to release, the detainee shall be notified of the upcoming release and provided an opportunity to make a free phone call to facilitate release arrangements.”

However, “not a single one of the nine ICE detention centers in Louisiana or in Mississippi are within walking distance of public transportation,” advocates say. And oftentimes individuals are given little to no notice of their upcoming release, and no ability to contact relatives. 

‘If you don’t get on this bus, you will stay here forever’

Frances Kelley, a volunteer with the Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention, a grassroots organization started in the fall of 2019, says these unsafe releases have been happening for over a year and a half. 

“The main focus of the complaint is how ICE is handling post-release in general. They are legally required to transport people to the nearest transportation hub if the detention center is located more than one mile away.  . . . They are supposed to provide information to people about resources in the area, and they are supposed to be allowing them to talk to their families when they are released so they can help them make travel arrangements. In many cases they aren’t doing that,” she said.

Kelley said that sometimes, not even a phone call is offered. 

“We have had immigrants saying they were hurried out onto a bus,” she said. “One of them was told, ‘If you don’t get on this bus, you will stay here forever.’

She said that even in cases where released individuals are given the opportunity to contact a relative, one phone call often isn’t enough to reliably arrange travel. 

“When [detainees] have been processed out, and are sitting in the lobby [of the detention center] overnight, they aren’t allowed to make phone calls to see if their family is on the way, so they can be stuck for hours. The staff doesn’t speak their language, so there is no way for them to get help.” 

The PBNDS standards also have additional requirements for handling the release of disabled individuals — “facilities must provide transportation for any detainee who is not reasonably able to walk to public transportation due to age, disability, illness, mental health or other vulnerability.” 

These requirements weren’t always followed either.

“In one of those cases, a [disabled] man was dropped off at the Monroe bus station . . . with no money, and no phone.” Kelley said. “Thankfully there was someone released with him from the facility who was able to help him contact his family.”

’They just dropped us off and they left’

On Friday, The Lens spoke with a group of immigrants from Haiti who were released from Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Jonesboro. On Thursday afternoon they were dropped off in downtown Shreveport.

“I thought that they were going to bring us to a place where they would facilitate the contact with our family members so they could get us. . . .When we got to the terminal, we thought we were going to be at a place with access to wifi or a hotel to contact our family. But we didn’t have any minutes to call [them]. . . .They just dropped us off and they left.” one woman described through a translator.

None of the women in the group speak either English or Spanish. “We used signs with people,” she said.

Thankfully, a station worker who appeared to be familiar with these dropoffs helped the women get in touch with Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention. “[He] told us that there is an organization that could help us out.”

“If Frances did not show up,” she continued, “I have no idea what I would have done because we did not know anyone here. . . .We were hungry and had no food to eat, and Frances came and gave us food and a hotel — I did not have any money, personally, so I would not have been able to do any of that. . . . I am thankful to god for this organization who helped us out a lot.”

“People need to be safely released and reunited with their families, loved ones, or sponsors. But ICE is intent on making this process as difficult as possible, putting people in dangerous situations,” Layla Razavi, deputy executive director* of Freedom for Immigrants told The Lens in a Saturday email.

“ICE must allow people to communicate their travel plans with their family and provide safe transportation to airports and bus stations. The government must also address the root of this issue and stop subjecting immigrants to the dehumanizing immigration detention system in the first place.”

Asked about these releases, an ICE spokesperson told The Lens, “In accordance with the civil immigration enforcement priorities directed by DHS, ICE is focusing its limited resources on national security, border security, and public safety. ICE will continue to carry out the duties of enforcing the laws of the United States to further the security and safety of our communities.”

*Correction: This article initially misstated Ms. Razavi’s job title. It has been corrected. (July 20, 2021)