The “free minutes” program dates back to early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when detention centers across the country closed their doors to visitors. “The phone calls are a lifeline to people in detention,” said Rosa Santana of Envision Freedom Fund.

ICE Detention Facility

Josh Denmark/Department of Homeland Ssecurity

ICE’s Batavia-Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in upstate New York.

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On the afternoon of June 6, a migrant detained at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, New York, got a pop-up message on the tablet he uses to communicate with his family and attorneys: The free call program he’s had access to for the last several years was ending, it said.

“When I opened it [the tablet] a message dropped,” the man said in Spanish over the phone, telling City Limits the service was eliminated early last week. “Several people were outraged after seeing the message.”

The “free minutes” program dates back to early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when detention centers across the country closed their doors to visitors. In May 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched the initiative to offer free domestic or international phone calls each month to people in detention. In Batavia, migrants received 520 minutes per month to make calls within the country. 

According to the detained migrant, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retaliation, the end of the program—coupled with other substandard conditions at the facility, including what he described as poor quality food and water—triggered a brief hunger strike during the previous weekend. 

About 40 detainees in the same unit at Batavia refused to eat starting on the afternoon of Friday, June 7, the migrant explained. He and seven others continued it until Saturday, and one person continued until Monday, June 10. The man alleged a number of other issues at the detention center: having to spend as long as 18 to 19 hours in a small cell shared with another person, being allowed just four daily flushes per toilet, and given only short periods outside.

“We did a hunger strike, going to the extreme of putting our lives at risk to be heard,” the man said in a statement shared by advocacy groups. Advocates say they’ve also received reports of retaliation against those taking part in hunger strike protests.

Representatives with ICE did not respond to City Limits’ requests for comments about the call program by press time, nor to allegations of mistreatment and poor conditions at its detention sites.

A spokesperson did not deny the hunger strike at Batavia but also did not respond to questions for specific details, only saying that the agency respects migrants’ right to self-expression and autonomy to refuse food. ICE said that the safety of those in its custody is a priority and staff who work in ICE detention facilities are trained in handling hunger striking individuals, and in making referrals for medical assessments.

Batavia isn’t the only location losing the free call service. Messages announcing the end of the program were reported in several facilities, according to Advocacy Director Setareh Ghandehari of Detention Watch Network.

The group received reports of it winding down in at least 15 other locations that ICE uses across the country—including at the Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York (the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, did not respond to City Limits’ requests for comments about the call program.) 

Migrants in OCJ told Rosa Santana, Envision Freedom Fund’s bond director and interim co-executive director, that they saw a paper on the jail bulletin board on June 7, stating in both English and Spanish that they would no longer have access to the free minutes.

“For everyone, this was just basically overnight,” Santana said, adding that there was no hunger strike there. “The phone calls are a lifeline to people in detention.”

Immigrant advocates and organizations that provide legal services to these individuals are sounding the alarm, saying people will be left without the opportunity to speak with their families or legal representatives.

“This is a very hard blow,” said the migrant in detention in Batavia, adding that he has already seen the impact of the cut on others who cannot get money into their commissaries to pay for calls. “There are many people who immigrate and have no relatives in the country who can support them economically.”

Detainees awaiting processing often participate in ICE’s Voluntary Work Program, fulfilling various tasks such as cleaning, cooking, laundry, and gardening in their facilities, while getting a couple of dollars in compensation.

“We’re hearing that people feel like they will have no choice but to sort of participate in these programs…to be able to make phone calls,” Ghandehari said.

ICE didn’t respond to questions about why the free phone call minutes program ended and did not specify how many facilities around the country have had, or will see it, terminated.

“They’re passing the cost down to people who cannot afford it,” Santana said. “All of this is like making money out of human misery, and people who can’t afford all of these things.”

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