ICE Retaliates Against Immigrant Rights Advocates by Suspending Visitation Program at Etowah Detention Center, Advocates Demand the Program Be Reinstated Ahead of the Holidays

For Immediate Release: 
Monday, December 2, 2019

Gadsden, AL — In retaliation of a group of volunteer visits that was followed by a rally outside of the Etowah Detention Center in November, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Etowah County Sheriff's Office have suspended the Etowah Visitation Project. On behalf of the Etowah Visitation Project, Freedom for Immigrants issued a cease and desist letter today to ICE and the Etowah County Sheriff's Office.

“By suspending our visitation program without any indication of when we will be able to visit again, the government is further isolating immigrants whose lives are already in jeopardy while in ICE custody,” said Katherine Weathers of the Etowah Visitation Project, the group that coordinates visits between volunteers and people detained at Etowah.

The visitation program was suspended on November 5, 2019 after a group of volunteers visited 20 immigrants detained at Etowah and then joined a rally with the Shut Down Etowah Campaign, Adelante Alabama Worker Center, and Detention Watch Network, and other local and national organizations on November 3. Less than 48 hours after the rally, the Etowah Visitation Project was suspended. As the reason for the suspension, the Sheriff’s Office cited two large buses that arrived at ECDC on Sunday, November 3rd, for the rally outside of the jail.

“ICE regularly lies, actively hides information from the public, and retaliates against anyone who speaks out against the abusive nature of immigration detention,” said Silky Shah, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network. “The ramp up of targeting immigrant rights advocates to silence political opposition to ICE’s cruel and unjust practices is yet another example of the degradation of democratic values under the Trump administration.”

“The timing of the suspension is deeply concerning. The Etowah Visitation Project is being targeted for exposing abuses in detention and amplifying the stories of people suffering in the system,” said Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. “Once again, ICE and the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office are trying to make visitor volunteers choose between their First Amendment rights and supporting people in immigration detention. This is not a choice the government can legally ask us to make.”

Freedom for Immigrants, a national immigrant rights organization that coordinates a network of community-led visitation groups operating in 69 immigrant prisons and jails in 26 states, has documented over a dozen cases of ICE suspending entire visitation programs since 2013 following ICE’s well-documented pattern of retaliation against activists and people inside. The Etowah Visitation Project was suspended once before in 2015, following a protest and complaint filed by Freedom for Immigrants documenting widespread physical abuse inside the jail. The visitation program was eventually restored. 

Visitation can be a lifeline for people inside detention, particularly those detained at Etowah who are kept indoors 24/7 with no access to outdoor recreation. 

“Etowah Detention Center is emblematic of the life-threatening abuses we see system-wide and the perverse financial incentives that are the bedrock of the system,” said Lisa Moyer of the Shut Down Etowah Campaign. “We demand ICE reinstate the visitation program at Etowah so we can continue to provide support to immigrants in detention and have visibility into ICE’s culture of secrecy. Visitation is an act of solidarity and mutual support that must be embedded into the larger effort to end abusive and deadly immigration detention.”


Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level. Visit Follow @DetentionWatch.

Freedom for Immigrants is devoted to abolishing immigration detention, while ending the isolation of people currently suffering in this profit-driven system. We monitor the human rights abuses faced by immigrants detained by ICE through a national hotline and network of volunteer detention visitors, while also modeling a community-based alternative to detention that welcomes immigrants into the social fabric of the United States. Through these windows into the system, we gather data and stories to combat injustice at the individual level and push systemic change. Visit Follow @MigrantFreedom

The Etowah Visitation Project is a member group of Freedom for Immigrants. Through visits and/or letters, the Project connects with immigrants who are being detained in the Etowah County Detention Center while they await immigration hearings or deportations. Our objective is to be there as friends and listeners, open to people of all religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We bear witness to the suffering and to the enormous strength and resilience of character that many of the men possess. Join us at