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.”
“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.”
During proceedings for Jimenez-Joseph’s wrongful death lawsuit, Free asked Stewart Detention Center’s ICE Officer in Charge John Bretz about the agency’s surveillance practices.
“Once we get a — once we hear, or get a report that there is going to be a demonstration, past practice was that we had to do a Significant Incident Report,” Bretz said in the deposition. “But that’s no longer the case, we discontinued that several years ago. That’s no longer a requirement.”
Besides ICE closely monitoring, accusing, and vilifying the human rights organizations, the documents reveal the close coordination between ICE and CoreCivic, the for-profit corporation running the detention center.
Members of El Refugio had asked to visit Jimenez-Joseph shortly before his death but were denied.
Records show that in addressing why Jimenez-Joseph was denied a visit shortly before his death, an ICE spokesperson wrote, “I’ll simply explain denying the visit was a CoreCivic decision… My sole intent here is to protect ERO” — ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations — “and I’ll be as sensitive as possible to not criticize CoreCivic in doing so.”
In another email, ICE’s then-Assistant Field Office Director Sean Ervin implies that he and CoreCivic are “on the same page” and that “we are trying to allow CoreCivic the opportunity to explain why they refused visitation to Jimenez.” When ICE realized that CoreCivic wouldn’t be making a public statement, Ervin proposed ICE spokespeople simply tell reporters, “ICE cannot comment on operational decisions made by Core Civic employees and defers questions to CoreCivic for response.”
“Our organization provides social visits at SDC” — Stewart Detention Center — “as a way of accompanying people who are detained,” Valencia, of El Refugio, told The Intercept. “This role does not prevent us from speaking up when we are made aware of neglect and abuse.”
As other vigils for Jimenez-Joseph were planned, according to a deposition from the wrongful death suit, Bretz, the ICE official, wrote in an email that ICE continued to monitor groups by doing “a little research on facebook,” noting the number of participants who were signing up to attend. Another email noted that the importance of the vigil, for which 19 people were planning to attend, was “high” — the same vigil for which the assistant field office director ordered someone from ICE to prepare the Significant Incident Report.
Earlier this year, ICE settled with the Jimenez-Joseph family, paying the family $925,000.
“Our family struggles everyday to cope with the fact that the only way ICE could resolve Jean’s death is with a settlement. We want change beyond that,” said Jean Jimenez-Joseph’s family in a statement addressed to ICE. “Jean is gone because of ICE. Gone because of carelessness. Gone because when he cried out for help you threw him into isolation. Gone because Stewart Detention Center was not staffed correctly. You are all complicit and to blame for Jean’s death.”
The monitoring of immigrant advocates, and interventions by ICE officials, continued into spring of last year.
On March 26, 2020, the advocacy groups Project South, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Mijente, Georgia Detention Watch, and Siembra NC organized a virtual press conference to bring attention to hunger strikes taking place at Stewart due to the lack of Covid-19 safety protocols.
When Project South’s Legal and Advocacy Director Azadeh Shahshahani tweeted about the hunger strike, ICE spokesperson Lindsay Williams sent an email to Shahshahani claiming that there were no hunger strikes happening and demanding that she “edit/delete your posts.” (Twitter does not give users the option to edit posts.) Williams chastised Shahshahani: “Persons who spread misinformation are engaged in irresponsible behavior by needlessly spreading fear, and they do a disservice to the communities they claim to represent.”
Shahshahani did not delete the posts, and Project South pushed back against ICE’s request. She noted that Project South goes through a corroboration process to verify its information from multiple sources and that there was indeed a hunger strike taking place at Stewart.
“It’s very much in line with what you’ll find in totalitarian regimes.”
Shahshahani told The Intercept that the incident was an example of “ICE not only monitoring your speech, but telling you what to do.” She added, “It’s very much in line with what you’ll find in totalitarian regimes.”
Twice in two weeks during April 2020, correctional staff at Stewart pepper-sprayed immigrants who were demanding improved conditions and protections from Covid-19. Advocates and family members of people detained have continued to speak out about alleged abuse at the facility.
Shahshahani told The Intercept, “The response of ICE is to dismiss abuses, not to do anything to address abuses.”
ICE monitoring of and use of scare tactics and retaliation against advocates is not new. As previously reported by The Intercept, New York University Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic documented more than 1,000 incidents of alleged retaliation against immigrant rights groups, individual activists, and journalists. Most of the incidents occurred from 2016 to 2020, but some go back as far as 2012, while others have been documented in recent months.
Rachel Maremont, an NYU law student and member of the Immigrant Rights Clinic, told The Intercept, “ICE is going after movement-based groups, knowing that these are the people who have the most contact with the folks in detention who are the most marginalized and vulnerable.”
Chiraayu Gosrani, also an NYU Law student who helped document the incidents of retaliation, noted a pattern in ICE’s monitoring of and actions against advocates. “ICE surveillance leads to more egregious forms of retaliation,” Gosrani said. He pointed to the arrest and attempted deportation of Ravi Ragbir, one of the leaders of the New Sanctuary Coalition, and the targeting of Maru Mora Villapondo, of La Resistencia in Washington state. Both high-profile activists were surveilled and eventually targeted by ICE. Gosrani asked, “What business does ICE have in monitoring people investigating human rights abuses?”
From the Obama administration through the Trump administration, and continuing today, the NYU Law group has witnessed ICE seeking to silence dissent within detention centers and deporting government informants, witnesses of mass shootings, and witnesses of medical abuse.
“Instead of addressing the grave issues advocates are raising,” Shahshahani and Priyanka Bhatt, both attorneys from Project South, said in a statement to The Intercept, “ICE is using intimidation in an attempt to silence us.”