ICE Discussed Punishing Immigrant Advocates for Peaceful Protests

Internal documents show how ICE surveilled immigrant advocates’ protest activities — and floated retaliating against them for it.

U.S. IMMIGRATION AND Customs Enforcement monitored immigrant advocacy organizations engaged in First Amendment-protected activity around a highly contentious immigration detention center in Georgia, according to documents obtained by the advocacy groups and shared with The Intercept. The public records show that ICE kept track of the groups’ nonviolent protests and social media posts, at one point suggesting that the agency might retaliate by barring visitations by one organization.

Internal ICE records and emails, as well as a deposition by an ICE officer in a court case, show the agency referring to an advocacy group as a “known adversary” and closely surveilling the immigration and civil rights activists’ activities, both online and in person.

“ICE’s pattern of surveilling and targeting immigrant rights organizers demonstrates how afraid the agency is of being held accountable for its actions”

Alina Das, a law professor at New York University and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic, who has closely studied ICE surveillance and retaliation against activists, told The Intercept. “Government agencies should be protecting these voices, not silencing them.”

The groups that were surveilled by ICE include Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, El Refugio, and others, as well as individual activists. The immigrant advocates have all worked to bring national and international attention to alleged abuse at ICE’s Stewart Detention Center and the Irwin County Detention Center, both in Georgia. Stewart is one of the largest ICE facilities in the nation, and it is also the facility that has seen the most deaths of detained migrants over the past five years.

The emails show that in one instance, ICE considered retaliating against the advocacy group El Refugio, an immigrant rights organization and ministry that focuses on visiting and supporting people detained in Stewart. ICE was monitoring a vigil planned for one of the men at Stewart who had died in custody. When informed that the main organizer of the vigil was not El Refugio, an ICE official wrote, “If it was El Refugio I was going to have to put some effort into getting them out of their visitation program.”

“We are concerned to know that ICE is surveilling community members, activists, and organizations like ours because we are concerned about the well-being of people in their custody,” El Refugio Executive Director Amilcar Valencia said. “As an organization that walks alongside those affected by immigration detention, we are obligated to report issues of poor treatment, medical neglect, and other abuses suffered at Stewart Detention Center.”

In a statement, an ICE spokesperson did not respond to questions about the discussion of retaliation. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Like all other law enforcement agencies, ICE follows planned protests to ensure the safety and security of its infrastructure, personnel, officers and all those involved.”

WHILE ICE HAS a history of monitoring and intimidating its critics — a practice that falls within a long pattern of the U.S. government surveilling activist groups — the agency’s surveillance of the groups first took place in Georgia following the 2017 death by suicide of Jean Jimenez-Joseph in Stewart. Advocates alleged that CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs Stewart, and ICE didn’t properly monitor or care for Jimenez-Joseph, noting that he was placed in solitary confinement for 18 days prior to his death, despite a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a history of mental illness, and a recent suicide attempt. (An internal ICE review obtained by CBS News confirmed that staff engaged in improper mental health care and failure to conduct routine health and safety checks in the days leading up to his death.)

Project South, a human rights group that has been at the forefront of investigating and exposing allegations of medical abuse in immigrant detention centers over the past year, shared the documents exclusively with The Intercept. The documents revealing the surveillance practices came from a larger trove of records accessed by Jimenez-Joseph’s family through the Freedom of Information Act as they prepared a wrongful death lawsuit against ICE. (In the statement, an ICE spokesperson told The Intercept, “ICE continues to place a greater focus on suicide prevention, working to improve its suicide risk assessment tools and providing more robust suicide prevention training for detention center staff.”)

When Georgia Detention Watch and other groups organized the vigil to honor Jimenez-Joseph, ICE monitored the vigil closely, exchanging multiple emails and counting attendees as they RSVP’d online. The documents indicate that ICE monitored the real-time presence of advocates at the vigils, resorting to militant language in their descriptions of them. ICE officials referred to Georgia Detention Watch as “a known adversary” and ordered the preparation of a “SIR,” or Significant Incident Report, for a candlelight vigil involving 19 people.

An ICE spokesperson, in an internal email the day after Jimenez-Joseph’s death, claimed that activist groups were trying to “exploit” Jimenez-Joseph’s death “by making a lot of false claims.” It is unclear what claims the spokesperson was referring to.

Andrew Free, the attorney representing the Jimenez-Joseph family, contrasted the efforts toward surveillance with a litany of what he considered failures by ICE leading up to and after the death.

“ICE didn’t bother to conduct the forensic autopsy their standards required, correct the false record of Jean’s criminal history, or reveal to Congress and the American people that he held valid DACA status up until the moment he died. But they found time to digitally surveil his memorial in Kansas City and a protest in Nashville against the CEO of a private prison company,” Free told The Intercept. “Even in death, ICE officials found ways to wantonly torment Jean and his community. We hope the evidence Jean’s family has gathered will end this toxic agency’s stranglehold on the truth.”

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José Olivares, John Washington