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America's Secret ICE Castles | The Nation

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America's Secret ICE Castles

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Cary, a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina, has a typical subfield office at the rear of CentreWest Commons, an office park adjacent to gated communities, large artificial ponds and an Oxford University Press production plant. ICE's low-lying brick building with a bright blue awning has darkened windows, no sign and no US flag. People in shackles and handcuffs are shuffled in from the rear. The office complex has perhaps twenty other businesses, all of which do have signs. The agents, who are armed, might not wear uniforms and drive their passengers in unmarked, often windowless white vans. Even Dani Martinez-Moore, who lives nearby and coordinates the North Carolina Network of Immigrant Advocates, did not know people were being held there until she read about it on my blog.

ICE agents regularly impersonate civilians--OSHA inspectors, insurance agents, religious workers--in order to arrest longtime US residents who have no criminal history. Jacqueline Stevens has reported a web-exclusive companion piece on ICE agents' ruse operations.

About the Author

Jacqueline Stevens
Jacqueline Stevens is a professor in the political science department at Northwestern University. Her most recent book...

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Immigration judges who flagrantly disregard the law are sheltered by a secretive system.

Inside ICE's secret detention facility on Varick Street in Manhattan.

In late October 2008, Mark Lyttle, then 31, was held in the Cary office for several hours. Lyttle was born in North Carolina, and the FBI file ICE had obtained on him indicated he was a US citizen. Lyttle used his time in the holding tank attempting to persuade the agents who had plucked him out of the medical misdemeanor section of a nearby prison, where he had been held for seventy-three days, not to follow through on the Cary office's earlier decision to ship him to Mexico. Lyttle is cognitively disabled, has bipolar disorder, speaks no Spanish and has no Mexican relatives. In response to his entreaties, a Cary agent "told me to tell it to the judge," Lyttle said. But Lyttle's charging document from the Cary office includes a box checked next to the boilerplate prohibition: "You may not request a review of this determination by an immigration judge."

Lyttle made enough of a fuss at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, that the agents there arranged for him to appear before a judge. But the checked box in the Cary paperwork meant he never heard from the nonprofit Legal Orientation Program attorneys who might have picked up on his situation. William Cassidy, a former ICE prosecutor working for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, ignored Lyttle's pleas and in his capacity as immigration judge signed Lyttle's removal order. According to Lyttle, Cassidy said he had to go by the sworn statements of the ICE officers.

Meanwhile, Lyttle's mother, Jeanne, and his brothers, including two in the Army, were frantically searching for him, even checking the obituaries. They were trying to find Lyttle in the North Carolina prison system, but the trail went cold after he was transferred to ICE custody. Jeanne said, "David showed me the Manila envelope [he sent to the prison]--'Refused'--and we thought Mark had refused it." Jeanne was crying. "We kept trying to find out where he was." It never crossed their minds that Mark might be spending Christmas in a shelter for los deportados on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

ICE spokesman Temple Black first told me the list was "not releasable" and that it was "law enforcement sensitive," but coordinator for community outreach Andrew Lorenzen-Strait e-mailed me a partial list of addresses and no phone numbers. I then obtained a more complete list, including telephone numbers, in response to a FOIA request. That list, received in November and dated September 2009, is about forty locations shy of the 186 subfield offices mentioned in the Schriro report and omits thirty-nine locations listed in an August ICE job announcement seeking applicants for immigration enforcement agents. These include ICE postings in Champlain, New York; Alamosa, Colorado; Pembroke Pines, Florida; and Livermore, California. The anonymous ICE official neither answered questions about why I was sent an incomplete list nor accounted for the disparity in official explanations of the list's confidentiality.

ICE obscures its presence in other ways as well. Everyone knows that detention centers are in sparsely populated areas, but according to Amnesty International's Reynolds, policy director of migrant and refugee rights, "Quite a lot of communities don't know they're detaining thousands of people, because the signs say Service Processing Center," not Detention Center, although the latter designation is used for privately contracted facilities. The ICE e-mail stated that the "service processing" term was first used when the centers were run by the predecessor agency Immigration and Naturalization Service, "because these facilities were used to process aliens for deportation," ignoring the fact that these structures were and are distinctive for confining people and not the Orwellian "processing."

Even the largest complexes, which are usually off side roads from small highways, are visible only if you drive right up to the entrance. Unlike federal prisons, detention centers post no road signs to guide travelers. The anonymous ICE official would not provide a reason for this disparity.

ICE agents are also working in hidden offices in one of the grooviest buildings in one of the hottest neighborhoods in Manhattan. Tommy Kilbride, an ICE detention and removal officer and a star of A&E's reality show Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force, is part of the US Marshals Fugitive Task Force, housed on the third floor of the Chelsea Market, above Fat Witch Bakery and alongside Rachael Ray and the Food Network. Across the street are Craftsteak and Del Posto, both fancy venues for two other Food Network stars, Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali. Above their restaurants are agents working for the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Someone who had been working in that building for about a year said he had heard rumors of FBI agents, though he didn't see one until nine months later when a guy was openly carrying a gun through the lobby. In November, at midday, he saw two men in plain clothes walk a third man in handcuffs through a side-street door behind Craftsteak. "It was weird, creepy," he said, adding that the whole arrangement made him uncomfortable. "I don't like it. It makes you wonder, what are they hiding? Is it for good reasons or bad reasons?"

Natalie Jeremijenko, who lives nearby and is a professor of visual arts at New York University, pointed out the "twisted genius" of hiding federal agents in the "worldwide center of visuality and public space," referring to the galleries and High Line park among these buildings. Jeremijenko was incensed. "For a participatory democracy to work, you need to have real-time visual evidence of what is going on" and not just knowledge by professors who file a FOIA request or even readers of a Nation article.

In response to a question about the absence of signs at subfield offices, the ICE e-mail stated, "ICE attempts to place signs wherever possible, however there are many variables to consider such as shared buildings, law enforcement activities, zoning laws, etc." Except for "law enforcement activities," the reasons did not apply to the facilities listed here, as evidenced by signs on adjacent businesses.

The Obama administration continued to ignore complaints about the LA subfield office known as B-18 until April 1, when Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as ICE officials, were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center. In September, the parties reached a settlement. The ACLU's Arulanantham said, "I never understood what [ICE] had to gain. The fact that after we filed the suit they completely fixed it makes it more mysterious" as to why their months of earlier negotiation brought few results. At the time of the lawsuit, he said, the nearby Mira Loma Detention Center had space. When I asked if ICE was trying to punish people by bringing them to B-18, Arulanantham said, "No, no one was targeted," adding, "If it were punitive, it would be less disturbing."

Arulanantham's response is, alas, more than fodder for a law school hypothetical about whether intentional or unintentional rights violations are more egregious. In 2006 ICE punished several Iraqi hunger strikers in Virginia--they were protesting being unlawfully held for more than six months after agreeing to deportation--by shuffling them between a variety of different facilities, ensuring that they would not encounter lawyers or be found by loved ones. This went on from weeks to months, according to Brittney Nystrom, senior legal adviser for the National Immigration Forum. "The message was, We're going to make you disappear."

As an alternative to the system of unmarked subfield offices and unaccountable agents, consider the approach of neighborhood police precincts, where dangerous criminals are held every day and police carry out their work in full view of their neighbors. Not only can citizens watch out for strange police actions, and know where to look if a family member is missing; local accountability helps discourage misconduct. ICE agents' persistent flouting of rules and laws is abetted by their ability to scurry back to secret dens, avoiding the scrutiny and resulting inhibitions that arise when law enforcement officers develop relationships with the communities they serve.

Indeed, the jacket Kilbride wears during arrests says POLICE in large letters. Working out of a heretofore secret location--Manhunters has no exterior shots--one that his supervisor had requested I not reveal, gives their operation the trappings of a secret police. An attorney who had a client held in a subfield office said on background, "The president released in January a memorandum about transparency, but that's not happening. He says one thing, but we have these clandestine operations, akin to extraordinary renditions within the United States. They're misguided as to what their true mission is, and they are doing things contrary to the best interests of the country."

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