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Immigrant and Civil Rights Groups Sue Homeland Security for Failing to Disclose Memo Recommending Closure of Notorious Alabama Detention Facility

Dec. 6, 2017

Immigrant and Civil Rights Groups Sue Homeland Security for Failing to Disclose Memo Recommending Closure of Notorious Alabama Detention Facility

Public Citizen and National Day Laborer Organizing Network Represent Five Organizations Seeking Disclosure of Memo

NEW YORK – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) illegally withheld a memo that recommended shutting down a notorious immigrant detention center in Alabama, a lawsuit filed today (PDF) by Adelante Alabama Worker Center, Detention Watch Network, Greater Birmingham Ministries, Immigrant Defense Project and Southerners on New Ground alleges. The plaintiffs are represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group and National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

The plaintiffs and other requestors filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in September 2016 seeking a “super-recommendations memo” issued by the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties that described “long-standing and continuing concerns” regarding an immigrant detention center in Alabama and called for DHS to “cease use of the facility” unless it could implement systemic reforms to address repeated complaints and ensure that the facility met basic quality and safety standards. DHS identified responsive records but withheld them in full, claiming that the entire memo is exempt from disclosure under FOIA. The plaintiffs challenge that claim.

Although available public information does not identify the specific detention center the memo concerns, the plaintiffs’ work on immigrant detention in Alabama leaves no doubt that the specific facility concerned is the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala. The Etowah County Detention Center, which is located inside the Etowah county jail pursuant to a contract between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the county, has been named one of the nation’s worst immigrant detention facilities multiple times by civil rights and advocacy groups. A 2016 investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that detainees were held there indefinitely – often for years – while awaiting appeal or deportation, and were reportedly forced to endure abusive conditions, including being beaten or held in solitary confinement. Detainees also reported a lack of basic hygiene supplies, inadequate medical care and a complete lack of access to the outdoors. “The Etowah immigrant jail is widely known as a constitutional black hole and a warehouse for extremely prolonged detention,” said Adelante organizer Cesar Mata. “It turns out that even DHS’ own watchdog agrees that the facility should be shut down. As Alabamians and members of the public, we have a right to know about the systemic abuses documented at Etowah.”

“Within a network of immigrant jails plagued by poor conditions, abusive treatment and ineffective oversight, Etowah still manages to stand out as a particularly problematic facility,” said Mary Small, policy director for Detention Watch Network. “Even ICE, with its long track record of letting contractor abuses slide, tried to close the facility in 2010. Given the Trump administration’s plans to rapidly expand immigration detention nationwide, it’s more important than ever that the public and decision-makers have access to basic oversight recommendations like these.”

Learn more about the case.