A coalition of Louisiana immigrants’ rights organizations on Thursday sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas beseeching him to address “torturous and racially discriminatory abuses, unlawful conduct and lack of oversight within immigrant detention centers under the jurisdiction of the New Orleans Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Office.”
The 17-page letter detailed an alleged pattern of systemic abuse in ICE facilities across the state, including episodes of use of torture and verbal threats by officers and guards and instances of discrimination and harassment toward Black asylum seekers.
“The facilities under NOLA ICE and their contractors have shown an ongoing history of abusive conditions and are unfit to house human beings,” the organizations said in the letter. “This pattern is so egregious that of the facilities that ACLU has called on you to shut down nationwide, nearly one-third (11 of the 39) fall within the NOLA ICE AOR.”
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The letter was sent the day after BuzzFeed reported the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) delivered a warning to ICE on Nov. 17. In the warning, the CRCL recommended stopping placing immigrants at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield until the facility's conditions were improved.
In a Nov. 13 story on The Advocate, dozens of asylum seekers and their family members shared their experience decrying isolation, filth, and lack of medical care at Winn Correctional Center, which is run by LaSalle Corrections, a Louisiana-based private prison operator.
The letter, which is signed by 10 nonprofit organizations including Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU of Louisiana Foundation, and Freedom for Immigrants, underlined that “in the year 2020 alone, we and other concerned parties lodged at least four multi-individual civil rights complaints calling for the investigation of excessive of force, naming ICE officers’ and private prison guards’ illegal use of torture, threats, coercion, and direct physical force.”
ICE officials in New Orleans would not comment on the letter because the correspondence was sent to DHS’s Secretary Mayorkas. DHS also has not responded to a request for comment.
The letter recalled a particularly violent episode of retaliation against hunger strikers in August 2020, when a group of 45 Black asylum seekers participated in a peaceful protest. “In response, Pine Prairie officers told the protestors that if they continued to hunger strike, they would be placed in solitary confinement,” advocates wrote. “The protestors sat on the floor and raised their arms to show that they were unarmed. Fifteen guards retaliated by mobilizing tear gas canisters, a tear gas gun, pepper spray, and handcuffs.”
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One immigrant reportedly described how “he watched as an ICE officer broke a protestor’s arm as he wrestled him to the ground,” sharing a vivid memory of hearing the "snap" of the bone.
Pine Prairie is a processing center operated by the GEO Group, a nationwide private prison provider. Responding to a previous, similar letter last June by the same group of nonprofit organizations, GEO denied the allegations to The Advocate | New Orleans Times-Picayune, saying they were being “advanced by radical special interest groups with a politically motivated agenda.”
The Dec. 16 letter underlined the increasing use by ICE officers of solitary confinement to punish alleged misbehavior by the asylum seekers. “Immigrants at Jackson Parish and Winn Correctional Centers described prison officers placing people in solitary for as long as 60 days,” the organizations stated. “We have received reports that facility officials at the Winn Correctional Center have punished immigrants with solitary confinement for attempting to speak to reporters during facility tours.”
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In November, Kokou Lare, an asylum-seeker from Togo who spent several months at Winn Correctional Center told The Advocate that immigrants are sent to a room called Cyper Room. “If you don’t follow every order, they throw you in solitary," he said.
“Winn Correctional Center does not have a room called the Cyper Room,” an ICE spokesperson responded at that time. “Allegations of lengthy forced isolation for special categories of detainees without communication access are unfounded and do not accurately reflect ICE detention operations,” the spokesperson added.
On page 9, the letter reported an episode in May 2021 when an attorney visited Winn Correctional Center. “(The lawyer) reported that as detained men were cutting down trees, ICE personnel made a joking comment to the effect to ‘now we can’t lynch them’.”
The letter continued: “That attorney reported another incident in May 2021 that occurred when two Cameroonian men asked guards at Winn if they would wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. One of the guards responded, ‘f--- Black people’ and pushed one of the detained men onto the floor.”
The New Orleans Field Office granted fewer parole requests nationwide than most other ICE offices, according to the federal data. ICE records collected by Human Rights First through FOIA showed that the office in New Orleans granted parole to only 1.6% of eligible asylum-seekers in 2018.
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Fewer granted parole means that the average detention time inside of the ICE facilities is likely to be longer, Sofia Casini, Director of Visitation Advocacy Strategies at Freedom for Immigrants, told The Advocate. And if the detention time is longer, the number of abuses is likely to grow, advocates and asylum seekers explained.
ICE data showed that the New Orleans Field Office’s parole denial rate is 99%. And even when the parole's request is approved by an ICE officer, Louisiana courts are more likely to deny asylum than anywhere else in the country. TRAC and EOIR immigration data from 2016 to 2021 showed that LaSalle Immigration Court in Jena denied 91.9% of the cases. In New Orleans Immigration Court, the denial rate is 87.6%. In both cases, the percentage is higher than the immigration courts nationwide (73.7% of all cases).
“Our organizations have also documented significant racial disparities in bond amounts, parole grants, and release rates among Black and African immigrants detained in NOLA ICE facilities,” the letter stated. A Southern Poverty Law Center’s analysis of government data on parole found that Cameroonian asylum seekers are 2.5 times more likely to be denied discretionary release in the NOLA ICE Field Office region.