After fleeing crime and extortion abroad, some migrant parents separated from their children in the U.S. have found themselves facing what critics call another shakedown, this time inside American detention centers: usurious phone rates and bureaucratic hassles to contact their family members.
Though government officials say migrant children in federal custody are offered twice-weekly phone calls with their parents, lawyers and advocates say many detainees remain cut off from family and friends and have yet to hear from children taken from them weeks ago.
They are stymied by long wait times, confusing instructions, dropped calls and, for cash-poor migrants, the cost – which can top 20 cents per minute and has been criticized as exorbitant.
One Guatemalan mother, now suing the government for taking her children away from her, wrote in a June 22 court filing that she had heard from her 2-, 6- and 13-year-old sons a handful of times since they’d been separated in May and that “the calls are very expensive, so I am only able to call when I have money.”
Likewise, a 24-year-old Honduran man detained at the IAH Secure Adult Detention facility in Livingston said he wasn’t able to speak to his 6-year-old daughter by phone for three weeks after the pair were separated at the border in late May. His wife said in a telephone interview from Honduras that she had never been able to initiate or receive a phone call from him.
Carl Rusnok, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, said in a statement that “calls between adults in ICE custody and their children in HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] custody are facilitated at no charge to detainees. Because children in HHS custody do not have 24-hour access to phones, these calls must be coordinated by ICE and HHS officials.”
“Moreover, phone calls to a directory of consulates, select non-governmental organizations, and pro-bono legal counsel are available to all ICE detainees free of charge,” Rusnok said. He did not respond to additional questions about rates and access to phones.
The Tribune's reporting for this project is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Detainees’ ability to make calls has taken on new urgency as separated migrant families see phone numbers as the crucial lifeline by which they can be reconnected or find out if their children, sometimes held hundreds of miles away, are safe.
Government officials tasked with enforcing rapidly changing and chaotic immigration directives — and now under court order to quickly reunify families and bolster communications — still appear to lack a clear roadmap on what federal policy will look like going forward and how to coordinate between the different arms of the nation’s sprawling and disjointed bureaucracy.
“We have had reports of parents having a hard time getting through, having to wait a long time to talk, and then only being allowed to talk for a few minutes with their children,” said Efrén Olivares, a director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal advocacy group. The hotlines set up and promoted by the government sometimes don’t work, and detained parents have complained to Olivares’ organization about “busy signals, waiting times longer than an hour and calls dropping.”
“Perhaps the most troubling,” Olivares said, “when we called one of the ICE detention facilities to inquire about that, and to see how a father could talk to his son, we were told that he didn’t have money in his account to be able to call.”
A big business
Though detained immigrants are afforded free phone calls to certain lawyers and government lines, paying to call family members is a function — not a fluke — of the U.S. detention system.
Migrants held in the facilities can be “essentially held incommunicado,” said Angélica Salceda, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which settled a lawsuit with ICE in 2016 related to telephone rates in California facilities that reached as high as $9.50 for 10 minutes long-distance. “Somebody who doesn't have money in their account just can’t make a phone call at all.”
The private subcontractors that outfit immigration detention facilities with phone lines are among a handful of corporate interests that stand to profit from President Donald Trump’s crackdown on people who cross the border illegally. Reversing the Obama administration’s attempt to rein in reliance on private prisons, corrections and immigration detention facilities have seen their fortunes rise under Trump, starting shortly after the November 2016 election, when the stock prices of some of the largest private prison contractors skyrocketed.
Though there are several small, privately owned providers that offer telecommunication services in detention and correctional facilities, the market is largely dominated by giants like Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link and Talton Communications, which services all ICE-operated facilities.
A five-year contract between Talton and ICE that expired in 2014 says most facilities that hold immigrant detainees must have at least one working phone for every 25 detainees, and often only allow for outgoing calls.
“Generally, detainees or the persons they call are responsible for the costs of telephone calls,” the contract reads, but phone services should be “reasonably priced,” with rates and surcharges comparable to what the “general public” pays. Indigent detainees – normally those with $15 or less in their commissary account – can “request a call to immediate family or others in personal or family emergencies or for a compelling need (to be interpreted liberally).”
The Talton contract is posted on a federal government website, but information on the company’s phone rates appears to be whited out. A Talton spokesperson referred questions to ICE.
Lawyers and advocates working with immigrants detained since the "zero tolerance" policy went into effect say costs and procedures vary from facility to facility, but they have heard that charges range from 10 to 25 cents per minute for domestic calls. For detainees who earn $1 to $3 per day in exchange for participating in “voluntary work programs,” a 15-minute phone call could easily exceed a day’s paycheck.
The companies are generating revenue on the backs of “people who are incarcerated or detained, largely people with very few resources,” said Bianca Tylek, founder of the New York-based Corrections Accountability Project, which seeks to eliminate financial interests in prisons and jails and is part of the Urban Justice Center. “At the same time, they are charging exorbitant rates.”
ICE houses detained immigrants in local jails, federal prisons or privately operated facilities, like the IAH Secure Adult Detention Center outside Houston, which is run by Management and Training Corporation. Though the agency cannot accept commissions on services it pays for, state and local facilities ICE contracts with to house immigrant detainees can. The payment structure of some publicly available contracts – for facilities not operated by ICE – contain provisions guaranteeing hefty commission rates that critics like Tylek liken to kickbacks.
CenturyLink Public Communications, a communications company that does not service federal detention or correctional facilities, charged inmates held in Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities 26 cents per minute for calls as of last year, and pays a 40 percent commission of their profits to the state of Texas. In Harris County, where a Securus subsidiary serves local jails and other government facilities, the company gives 70 percent of their profits from calls back to the county. When it bid to service Harris County in 2010, Securus also added a $1 million enticement — a “signing bonus” it said it would deposit in county coffers if awarded the contract.
“They can pay million-dollar signing bonuses, give away 70 percent of their phone revenue, and still make immense profit margins," Tylek said. "If nothing else, it tells you that the high cost of calls is not related to providing the service, but rather to paying the government and padding their bottom line.”
A spokesperson for CenturyLink said the 40 percent rate paid to the Texas Criminal Justice department is "dictated by state statute as a means to provide funding for the State of Texas Victims of Crime Fund."
A Securus spokesperson said: “Our services allow incarcerated individuals to communicate with loved ones while providing multiple layers of technology that help corrections officials investigate and solve crimes, prevent criminal activity and protect public safety." The spokesperson said the company, which does not hold contracts with ICE, has an average call rate of 17 cents per minute that "covers the cost of hardware, equipment and servicing, while also contributing to inmate welfare funds and local budgets that provide critical public services. We’re proud to receive consistently high ratings from users of our services.”
Harris County officials did not respond to requests for comment and could not be reached.
Advocates worry the cost and complexity of using detention facility phones could hamper family reunification efforts that have already been plagued by chaos and confusion.
After a federal “zero tolerance” policy towards people who illegally crossed the border left more than 2,300 migrant children separated from their parents and stranded in shelters across the country, Trump signed an executive order on June 20 reversing course on the separations, and federal officials said they would put ruptured families back together. Five hundred and twenty-two of the separated children had been reunited as of June 23, according to a government fact sheet.
A federal judge put a timer on that promise June 26, calling for separated migrant families to be reunited within 30 days and afforded a phone call within 10. It remains unclear how parents and children scattered in facilities across the country – and tracked by different arms of the nation’s sprawling immigration bureaucracy – can find each other, especially with limited phone access and government-sponsored hotlines that have reportedly been unhelpful.
In his order, the judge wrote the onus is on parents to find their children and that there is a “lack of any effective procedures or protocols for notifying the parents about their childrens’ whereabouts or ensuring communication between the parents and children.”
Andrea Guttin, a lawyer with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, questioned whether detention centers and shelters can quickly come into compliance with the judge’s order. She said she’s spoken to numerous migrant parents who have not been able to contact children they’d been separated from more than a month ago. On a recent tour of the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, she heard detainees could use tablets – offered by companies like Talton – to get news, send texts and emails or make phone calls. She didn’t see any using them.
“I don't know what's going to change in the next 10 days for them [the government] to be able to comply with the order and let them speak with their children,” Guttin said. “There’s a lot of questions.”
Jay Root contributed to this story.