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Patty Prather, a volunteer with Louisiana Aid, center, helps asylum seekers Lidiane de Souza, of Brazil, right, and Madeleine, of Cameroon (who wished not to give her real name), check in for flights to their temporary US sponsor residences, Wednesday, September 29, 2021, at the Lafayette Regional Airport in Lafayette, La.

Hundreds of asylum seekers at the ICE detention centers in Louisiana are being forced to pay for private transportation options to get to an airport or bus station once they are released, a move that does not comply with the ICE release protocols, according to immigration advocates and nonprofit organizations.

According to the 2011 ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards (revised in 2016), the detention facilities that are 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.”

None of the ICE detention facilities in Louisiana are within walking distance of public transportation. However, asylum seekers often are typically offered a list of taxi providers that can take them to the nearest transportation at a cost of up to $250 a ride per immigrant, according to documents obtained by The Acadiana Advocate.

The simple lists of providers printed on white paper and handed out by detention center staff include up to seven taxi companies that detainees and their families or sponsors are encouraged to contact to make travel arrangements.

"Despite the fact that immigrants being released from detention have a strong network of loved ones who are ready to assist them with their travel, ICE is not allowing people to adequately communicate with their support networks, nor is providing people safe and efficient public transportation options,” said Jeff Migliozzi, Communications Manager for Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit that in July filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security over the release practices.

“Immigrants and their families have to pay hundreds of dollars on private taxis or miss their scheduled flights,” he said.

According to the U.S. Immigration Detention Interactive Map by Freedom For Immigrants, there are 11 ICE detention facilities statewide, and nine of them are run by private companies. The main ICE partner in Louisiana is the GEO Group, a for-profit prison company that runs 57 facilities across the United States, including four detention facilities in Louisiana — La Salle ICE Processing Center, Alexandria Staging Facility, Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center and South Louisiana ICE Processing Center.

In the 2017 fiscal year, GEO Group received $184 million from the federal government, more than any other ICE contractor, followed by Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic that received $135 million for immigration detention-related services, data shows.

Asked if the four GEO facilities in Louisiana are complying with the 2011 ICE release protocols and if the company has any existing contracts or agreements with taxi providers in Louisiana, the GEO Group declined to provide a comment on the record.

According to federal government data, Louisiana has the second-highest number of people in U.S. immigration detention per day, with 4,415 people detained a day as of April 2019.

A U.S. House investigation by the Committee on Homeland Security found "a concerning pattern of ICE contracting with Louisiana facilities that are poorly equipped to meet ICE’s own detention standards.” The report, published in September 2020, also highlighted that the oversight failures include “facilities, particularly in Louisiana, that had a well-publicized history of abuses prior to contracting with ICE.”

When asked if ICE facilities in Louisiana were following the agency's guidelines for release procedures, an ICE offcial said: "ICE makes custody determinations every day on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, considering the merits and factors of each individual case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines, and legal mandates."

A few weeks ago, the federal agency began dropping off asylum seekers at the Lafayette Regional Airport weekly, a move that local immigration activists saw as an encouraging effort to comply with the release protocols. Daniela Faries, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Venezuela, was one of the dozens of immigrants who were offered a free ride on a van by detention officials.

“I did not know I had this option when I was waiting for my papers,” said Faries, who spent three months at the ICE detention facility run by GEO Group in Basile after she crossed the U.S./Mexico border in Texas. “Usually this is not how it happens. I know that many are still paying for being transported.”

Advocates in Louisiana pointed to the fact that private taxis are not considered public transportation, and the related costs create logistic challenges to those who are released. But the taxi providers defended their service.

“Our reputation speaks for itself both with the detainees and the staff, and our name is well known for this reason,” said David Jr. Hernandez, the son of David Hernandez, the owner of a taxi company by the same name, which operates in central Louisiana. “Our service goes above the ride. We provide the immigrants with a free meal, free backpacks if needed, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, and other necessities,” said Hernandez Jr., who is a retired federal officer agent. “We are also fluent in Spanish, Creole French, and some Portuguese. We are here to help, too.”

In a phone interview with The Advocate, the senior David Hernandez confirmed that the flat rate for a single ride from the South Louisiana Detention Center in Basile to the Lafayette Regional Airport is $200 per immigrant.

“We don’t have any agreement with any detention center,” Hernandez said. “They just know us because we have been operating in Louisiana for years. Everyone can trust us.”

More recent federal guidelines over the release process made the language less clear about the responsibilities of each detention facility compared to the 2011 ICE protocols. The National Detention Standards Revised in 2019 stated that “as appropriate and necessary, facilities shall transport detainees to local public transportation stations at a time when such public transportation is running.” But the ICE detention facilities in Louisiana, with the exemption of the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, are not required to follow these more recent guidelines at the moment, and are expected to follow the 2011 standards, according to Freedom For Immigrants.

 “This is a humanitarian failure of the government’s own making,” said Jeff Migliozzi of Freedom For Immigrants. “If ICE officials followed their own protocols, many of these situations could be avoided.”

A earlier version of the story incorrectly described David Jr. Hernandez as a retired ICE agent. Mr. Hernandez is a retired federal officer.