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ICE Detention Facility San Francisco

The Office of Detention and Removal would like to invite you to meet with us on July 12, 2007, at 9:00am. The purpose of this meeting is to provide an overview of the Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO). DRO is responsible for promoting public safety and national security by making certain through the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws that all removable aliens depart the United States.

Removable aliens! Is that anything like removable tape? So handy!

After nearly a year of asking Field Office Director Nancy Alcantar to allow us to visit the San Francisco detention center, and being told such a visit was impossible, we were finally being invited to do the impossible. It took a group of Bay Area congressional representatives, working together, to crack the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Setting the Context - Why Visit ICE?

Setting the context for this visit is important. Several years ago, a young woman from our community in Palo Alto was taken into custody by ICE. She told us about the ordeal she went through, taken with nothing more than her underwear, tossed into a freezing cell with no food or water, not told what was going on, taken from that cell in a van to Yuba County, and held for days before she could call someone to let family know where she was. During that time she was threatened with deportation to Mexico, even though she was Salvadoran born and a Canadian citizen. Her story was all too familiar with a member of our organization who had supported hundreds of families during the Muslim male roundup that had occurred after September 11th. Because of all the similar stories we felt that we needed to find out what was really going on so we asked ICE to allow us to visit the Yuba County Jail, one of many facilities that "rent" beds to ICE for immigration detainees.

Click here to read about that story:

This year, another Palo Alto family became ensnared in the ICE. Isabel and Pedro, parents of four American-born children, had been living in the United States for nearly 20 years. They had worked diligently to get legalized but the lawyer they had hired turned out to be a crook. Pedro and Isabel were under court order to be deported, but they thought their lawyer was taking care of things. What they didn't know was that their lawyer had actually been disbarred and hadn't told them the true gravity of their situation. Pedro was on his way to work one day when he was picked up by ICE agents and immediately deported. Isabel was also arrested and ordered to leave the country in 30 days, enough time to arrange either for her U.S. citizen children to come with her, or to be placed in foster care. When the Palo Alto Weekly ran a story about the family, the community rose up to try to help them. In the end, the family left the United States and is now living in a shack in Mexico, where the children can't go to school and the family is destitute.

Click here to read that story:

A few weeks ago, a young Canadian man got in trouble for tree-sitting in Berkeley, trying to protect an old oak grove. Lacking the now-required passport (Canadians now need passports to be in the United States), and probably having overstayed his legally allowed time anyway, after serving time for tree-sitting and resisting arrest, he was taken into ICE custody and sent to Yuba County. A few days before he was to be put on a plane to Canada, ICE claimed that he had become mentally unstable, and that they couldn't send him home. His parents contacted our organization because of the writing we had done about Yuba County and we and many others worked to help get their son home.

Click here to read that story:

Finally - The Meeting and Tour

It was with these three stories in mind, and the tales told by countless others in our community and across the country, that we had been demanding a meeting with ICE officials. Today was finally the day when we were going to get that meeting, and, get to see the holding cells about which we'd heard so much.

I arrived about an hour early, to find a nearby coffee shop or restaurant where our delegation could gather before and after our meeting. Seeing a long line of people waiting to enter 630 Sansome Street, and a contract security guard managing the queue, I thought it would also be good to check with him and see where our group should gather just before our appointed time.

"Who's this?" he asked when I showed him our invitation letter. "That's the Director." I answered. "I don't know who she is…. Wait out here." He went inside, perhaps to see if anyone in there knew who the Director of the agency was. Apparently not. "You'll have to come back and get in the line later when the rest of your group arrives, and just wait." He finally told me.

He then started checking the ID's and documentation others already in the line were carrying, before allowing a few at a time to enter the building. "Got any cell phones or cameras?" he would ask each person. If they had a cell phone or camera, he'd send them to the camera shop across the street where, he told each person, they could check their camera or phone for a $3 fee.

I was curious about this arrangement where a camera shop across the street from the Federal building would somehow have a lock on holding people's cell phones and getting $3 a pop for the "service." With time on my hands, I popped into the shop.

"Excuse me," I said. "You must get a lot of people coming over here every day leaving their cell phones and cameras with you." No response from the proprietor. "About how many people do that every day?" I asked. "It varies." He answered. "Sure, I'd guess that. But on average, about how many people?" He walked away from the counter and into the back of the shop. "Excuse me, but about how many people a day?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"I was just curious. I mean it's only 8:00am and I've seen a few folks already come in now. Must be a lot of folks, right?"

"I said it varies."

That was the end of the conversation.

Now, you might be wondering why, on a story about immigration and detention, with people dying in custody and mentally disabled Americans being accidentally sent to Mexico, and all sorts of other tragedies going on, I would become so focused on this one little issue. Since our organization started learning about what happens to people who are ensnared in the ICE, we've found that there are an awful lot of people making an awful lot of money on other people's misery. This camera shop was just one more example. And why was the shopkeeper so reluctant to answer my question? I guess we'll have to leave that to my friends at the San Francisco Chronicle to answer. For now, let's get back to our meeting.

After finding a great place for coffee before, and lunch afterward, I met the group outside 630 Sansome Street. We'd all made sure we left our cell phones and cameras in our cars, of course.

Father John Butcher, who had kept the heat on our local Congress member's staff (thank you Patty Kim and Rachel Arnow (Rep. Anna Eshoo's staff) and Cindy (Rep. Zoe Lofgren's staff)) to get us into this facility, walked to the front of the line and spoke to the security guard. We didn't have to wait in line. There's something about a large man, with an impressive shock of white hair and a clerical collar that seems to cut through officious contract security guard procedures! Within minutes, we were inside the building where, much to my surprise, a staffer was handed a cardboard box in case any of us had cell phones or cameras, so that we could put them in the box and pick them up on the way out. I guess only the poor folks who have to wait in line have to give $3 to the guy across the street.

We were escorted to a conference room on the 10th floor of the building. Director Alcantar soon walked in with Assistant Field Office Director Aiello, Supervisor of Detention and Deportation Officer Daniel A. Bible, and Assistant Field Office Director Sylvia Arguello. In addition to our group of representatives from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, there were five other people representing other organizations working on immigration rights and legal services.

Director Alcantar handed out folders of printouts of various pages from various agency web sites. As she walked by my spot I opened the red binder I had brought with me in which I had the latest GAO (Government Accountability Office) report to Congress on "Alien Detention Standards." The report covers inspections by GAO to see if the standards are being adhered to, and to identify any specific deficiencies that needed to be addressed. The deaths of 62 detainees over the past three years that had been reported by the New York Times were not noted in this report, but the report did raise the alarm on its very front page that the telephones available for detainees to call consulates, lawyers, and family were a complete disaster.

An important thing to note, is that ICE operates under "standards and guidelines," not regulations. The Department of Homeland Security has resisted any attempt to regulate their activities. Why would anyone want to regulate an organization that has guns and the power over life and death? And, another important thing to note is that when Congress has asked ICE for documentation on how it trains its officers to adhere to those standards and guidelines, ICE has steadfastly refused to provide copies of any training manuals - or even class agendas. More on that later.

After handing out the folders, Director Alcantar suggested that we should start by introducing ourselves. We went around the table and when it was Father Butcher's turn, he introduced our group and explained what faith communities we represented and then, as we had planned during our pre-meeting coffee gathering, he said "Before we get started we'd like to know how much time you've allocated for our meeting, so that we can make the best use of it. We do have a lot of questions."

"We have one hour, and we've got presentations we've prepared and the tour of the facility so I don't think there will be any time for your questions." She responded.

We protested a bit, but she cut us off and said that we could send our questions to someone later. She then launched into a presentation about the history of ICE. She went on for about five minutes describing how things had changed since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and what areas of California, Guam and Hawaii her organization in San Francisco was responsible for. At that point I was ready to stand up and suggest that if this is the type of hour we were about to spend, it would be better for us to leave. But she beat me to the punch, looking at her watch and announcing that she had another meeting and she'd be leaving her staff to handle the rest of our gathering.

Assistant Director Aiello took over and began presenting from his notes.

Within about two minutes, someone in the group interrupted and asked a question. He answered. That led to another question. He and the other staffers answered. Soon, the meeting was fully interactive.

Here are some of the questions and answers (all somewhat paraphrased):

Does ICE stand outside of schools and day care centers and question mothers coming to pick up or drop off their children?

None that report to AD Aiello. (If you actually ever see someone doing that, report it to AD Aiello.)

When ICE has a warrant to arrest a particular person, and agents appear at that person's house to make the arrest, do ICE officers also start knocking on other doors looking for other possible undocumented immigrants?

None that report to AD Aiello. However, if any of his officers do happen to spot anyone whom they think might be here illegally, it is their duty to question and if appropriate arrest them.

IMPORTANT LESSON FOR IMMIGRANTS: If someone knocks on your door and you think they are ICE agents, don't answer the door. Unless they have an arrest warrant SIGNED BY A JUDGE, they can not forcibly enter your home and can ONLY enter with your permission. If you don't open the door and invite them in, they can't come in.

Just because someone has a "warrant," doesn't mean that warrant is signed by a judge.

Are ICE Agents "police?"

ICE Agents wear jackets and caps that say "POLICE" because the Department of Homeland Security considers them to be police officers. However, unlike (town, city, state and other) police, they are NOT required to inform people of their right to remain silent.

However, according to ICE:

"During the course of normal targeted operations, while attempting to arrest ICE fugitives, Fugitive Operations Teams (FOT's) often encounter other individuals at the targeted location. Pursuant to section 287(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act…… an officer has the authority to question any person as to their right to enter, re-enter, pass through, or reside in the United States. If a person is deemed to be an alien in the U.S. illegally and is found to be amenable to removal, they may be arrested, without warrant, and processed accordingly to removal."

CRITICAL LESSON: Don't be "amenable!"

No matter who you are, or what your circumstances, you always HAVE the right to remain silent. You don't have to say anything to anyone. There are special cards available in many languages that you can hand to the police or ICE agents that basically say "Leave me alone! I don't want to speak with you. Speak to my lawyer (with a blank space for you to write the name of a lawyer or a name from an organization that protects immigrant's rights).

Does the practice of calling themselves "Police" make immigrants less likely to cooperate with local police in other criminal investigations?


If you are arrested by ICE agents, what should you do about prescription medications you need to take?

According to AD Aiello, at the time you are arrested, if you are home, you will be given an opportunity to gather any prescription medications you need to take. You should try to get the original prescription bottles so that they can verify what the prescription is and how often you are supposed to take it.

No matter what, you should tell the arresting ICE officer that you need medications. ICE is supposed to get medication for you as soon as possible.

Officer Daniel A. Bible also told us that people being arrested are told that the detention facilities will be cold, and that they should take a few moments to gather warm clothing to wear while they are being detained.

Can detainees make phone calls while they are being held?

The holding cells have phones which are pre-programmed to call consulates, non-profit organizations offering immigrant services (like Catholic Charities), and which can also be used to make collect calls. Up until very recently, those phones, according to the Government Accounting Office (GAO) were a complete disaster. Even when working properly, none of the organizations on the pre-programmed list offer legal services (like pro-bono lawyers).

(Click this link to read that report:

Despite immigrant support organizations decrying these broken phones for years, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that it was the July GAO report that alerted it to the problem.

At 630 Sansome Street, according to the officer in charge of the holding cells, the phones were recently repaired and all are working.

CRITICAL NOTE: The phones in these facilities CAN NEVER call cell phones. The rationale for this rule was not explained, but it was made clear that this is a policy that ICE has no intention of changing. Given that so many people ONLY have cell phones and not landlines, this can make contacting loved ones very difficult for detainees.

Do detainees get fed in this facility?

Yes - Regular meals are brought in by a contractor. There are also snacks and beverages available. "The first thing people want to know when they're brought in is when's lunch?" The officer in charge told us. "Prisoners in local jails may have had breakfast at 4:30am, and by the time they get here at 11:00am or so, they're starving." He showed us a room with a large refrigerator and stacks of drinks on the floor.

Does ICE ever give detainees medication to prepare them for deportation flights, for example if a detainee is uncooperative and ICE feels they need to be sedated to get them on a plane?

AD Aiello said "no." There did not seem to be any capabilities for ICE staff at 630 Sansome Street to administer any medication other than medication already prescribed for the detainee and brought by that detainee to the detention center.

Can ICE deport a person without that person ever getting to appear before a judge?

Yes. If a person waives his or her rights to see a judge, and signs a voluntary deportation agreement, that person can be immediately deported.

LESSON: If you have not already been ordered to be deported by a judge, and you want to stay in the United States, DO NOT SIGN a voluntary deportation order!

What happens to children when ICE agents arrest their parents?

Many children of undocumented immigrants are American citizens, born in this country. ICE claims that it tries its best to keep families together, and will sometimes pay to send children with their parents back to their parents' home country. One of the most common reasons for NOT immediately deporting a parent is to allow that parent time to make decisions about and arrange for the care of children.

ICE officers sweep local jails to arrest immigrants and move them into ICE custody and possibly deport them. How does ICE know whom to look at in those jails?

First - we were asked NOT to use the term "sweep." ICE calls these gatherings of immigrants "operations."

According to ICE, the law requires jails to report the names and countries of origin for any "immigrants" who have been arrested. Local, county and state jails, according to ICE, are PAID BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT for money spent jailing undocumented immigrants for criminal acts. Therefore, in addition to it being the law, it is also in local governments' financial interest to report immigrants to ICE so that they get paid. Jails are supposed to report ALL immigrants, whether documented or not, and ICE sends officers to the jails (when possible) to investigate those immigrants and decide if they should be taken into ICE custody.

What kind of training do ICE officers go through?

They go through about six months of Federal training. The more senior ICE agents that were meeting with us had gone through their initial training 14-20 years earlier. That prompted some in our group to ask if things hadn't changed quite a bit in that time, and what new training did they receive, for example, to deal with cultural sensitivity to today's immigrants. We were told that throughout their careers they take classes to learn new skills, refresher courses, online training, and many other forms of education.

Would ICE provide copies of training manuals to members of Congress?

"Members of Congress have already asked for that."

IMPLICATION: Yes - we'd give that to Congress.

TRUTH: Members of Congress have asked for copies of the training manuals and ICE has NOT COMPLIED with the request.

QUESTION: Why shouldn't members of Congress, especially those who are on committees tasked with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, be able to review manuals used to train federal agents?

If someone you love has been taken into ICE custody, how can you figure out where they are?

You have to call each detention facility and ask. In addition to 630 Sansome Street, which is only for very short term holding (less than one day), there are five possible detention centers used by the San Francisco Field Office:

  • Bakersfield "Lerdo" Detention Facility
    (661) 391-7901
  • Sacramento County Detention Facility
    (916) 874-5417
  • Santa Clara County Detention Facility
    (408) 299-3337
  • Elmwood Jail (Milpitas)
    (408) 299-3545
  • Yuba County Detention Facility
    (530) 749-7740

If you believe ICE officers have acted improperly, how can you report it?

ICE has an Office of Professional Responsibility, similar to police department's "Internal Affairs" which investigate allegations of misconduct. Call 1-888-2INTAKE and ask for the Office of Professional Responsibility. Click here for other names and contact addresses.


After we had exhausted our hour together, we were taken on a tour of the detention facility. According to the officer in charge, the facility could hold a maximum of approximately 100 people at any one time.

The entire facility was very clean, cold, and sterile. It looked like a hospital, with none of the nice paintings and children's art that at least tries to warm up a frightening environment.

We were taken into a room with a nice couch and a few tables where families of those being held could wait, mothers and children perhaps, of those who had been arrested. Seeing nothing that children could play with, no books, or toys, and no TV, we asked what kids would do while in this room. "We bring stuff out for them." We were told.

Would children be left alone in this room?


"I wouldn't want my child to be left alone in a locked room like this" one of the women in our group responded.

We then moved on to see the holding cells.

Each of the cells could hold about 25 people and consisted of a long steel bench running across one wall. At the end of that bench, separated by a short three foot wall, there was a steel toilet. Someone using that toilet would have no privacy.

Nothing adorned the other walls, not even a clock. A prisoner banged on the door as we passed one cell and pointed at his arm, wanting to know what time it was.

"Prisoners and people in hospitals," John Butcher said, "always want to know what time it is."

After leaving the cells, we were taken into the large room where detainees were "processed" in and out. There were computers, tables and chairs, and steel holding areas to store prisoner's property. There was also a large area that held incredibly long chains and handcuffs. Prisoners swept up (I mean operationed) from local jails are typically brought in chained and handcuffed.

What a nightmare. Of everything we heard and saw that day, the image of those long chains and handcuffs and that toilet will remain the most vivid for me.


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