The toll-free number, (855) 448-6903, will field queries from detainees held by state or local law enforcement agencies if the detainees “believe they may be U.S. citizens or victims of a crime,” the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said in a statement.
An ICE official in Washington said agency representatives had not been authorized to comment about the hotline but that more information soon would be posted online.
The hotline will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by ICE personnel, according to the statement, with interpreters available in several languages.
“ICE personnel will collect information from the individual and refer it to the relevant ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations field office for immediate action,” the statement said.
As part of the new initiative, ICE officials plan to issue a form to all detainees informing them that ICE will assume their custody within 48 hours, according to the statement. The form will be available in English as well as Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese and Vietnamese, the statement said. ICE posted a sample copy of the form online Thursday.
“It also advises individuals that if ICE does not take them into custody within the 48 hours, they should contact the [law enforcement agency] or entity that is holding them to inquire about their release from state or local custody,” the statement said.
The hotline comes amid controversy over local law enforcement agencies’ ability to detain people they believe to be illegal immigrants.
Scores of local law enforcement agencies partner with the federal government under the 287(g) program, established in 1996, which deputizes police to turn over suspects or criminals to immigration authorities for possible deportation. Normally, police do not enforce federal law.
ICE has 287(g) agreements with 69 law enforcement agencies in 24 states, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Since January 2006, the program is credited with identifying more than 217,300 potentially removable illegal immigrants, mostly at local jails, according to ICE records. Also under the program, ICE has trained and certified more than 1,500 state and local officials to enforce immigration law, the agency says.
Immigrant rights groups say the program has led to civil rights violations and racial profiling, and such authority has been especially controversial in Arizona. There, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been criticized for what many people call mistreatment of suspected illegal immigrants.
This month, the Justice Department announced it was suspending its 287(g) agreement with Arpaio and his deputies after an investigation found they had pursued a campaign of racial profiling against Latinos, making unlawful arrests and violating civil rights laws in an effort to crack down on illegal immigration.
Separately, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, ended the Maricopa County jail officers’ authority to detain people on immigration charges, barring them from holding immigration violators who have not been charged with local crimes.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, called the new hotline “a positive development,” but said it was “overdue” and “inadequate.”
“Often people who are subject to ICE detainers have no idea why they are being held,” said Saenz, who is based at the national Latino civil rights group’s Los Angeles headquarters. “This kind of step should have been in place the very first time ICE undertook an expansion of its detainers.”
“ICE needs to focus on fixing the problems up front,” Saenz added, avoiding unconstitutional arrests and monitoring local law enforcement agencies it partners with rather than relying on detainees to report abuses.
“It relies on the individuals being detained to have the courage, knowledge and wherewithal to make a call to the hotline and follow up. They may feel intimidated or unable to adequately navigate their case,” Saenz said.