Rarely does life mirror TV as directly as it did in the fifth episode of the last season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
In the episode, which debuted on July 26, 2019, along with the rest of show's seventh season, the character Martiza Ramos, played by Diane Guerrero, is sitting in the prison kitchen’s walk-in freezer. She's worried for an upcoming immigration hearing because she doesn't have an attorney, only to find out about a toll-free hotline that can connect her to a free lawyer and begins celebrating — it's run by Freedom for Immigrants, a group has that exact hotline set up in real life. But fellow inmate Gloria Mendoza, played by Selenis Leyva, cuts Ramos’ celebration short, warning her: “You have to be careful, though. Apparently, if they figure out that you’re using the hotline, Big Brother shuts it down.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, “that’s exactly what happened.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement shut down a hotline for detained immigrants run by Freedom for Immigrants, a group that runs visitation programs in detention centers across the country, just two weeks after the number was featured on the show, the LA Times reported. The hotline had operated for several years before it was highlighted on OITNB.
“The timing of the shut downs is deeply concerning. Freedom for Immigrants is being targeted for exposing abuses in detention and amplifying the stories of people suffering in the system” Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-founder/ executive director of Freedom for immigrants said in a press release. “Once again, ICE is trying to make us choose between our First Amendment rights and supporting our friends in immigration detention. This is not a choice our government can legally ask us to make.”
On Thursday, August 22, after their hotline was shut down, Freedom for Immigrants sent a cease-and-desist letter to ICE, alleging that the government violated the group’s free speech and asking that ICE Director Matthew Albence restore the line. The group argued that the national attention brought to their hotline through the show was one of the driving forces behind ICE retaliating and shutting it down — but ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told The Washington Post that allegation is “false.”
“The claim this has anything to do with a TV show is pure fiction,” he said. “The reality is this group engaged in prohibited conduct.” He told MTV News that the actual reason the hotline was shut down was because Freedom for Immigrants may have broken some rules, including “three-way calling and call forwarding.”
“Detainees are further allowed to make free calls to an ICE-approved list of free legal service providers for the purpose of obtaining initial legal representation,” Shawn Neudauer, ICE’s public affairs officer, told MTV News in a statement. “Because these legal calls are unmonitored and unrecorded, certain prohibited activities, to include three-way calling and call forwarding, are strictly prohibited. Pro bono organizations found to be violating these rules may be removed from the platform. However, removal from this platform in no way limits the ability of an ICE detainee to phone such an organization directly should the detainee wish to do so.”
However, that’s not the reasoning ICE gave Freedom for Immigrants, according to the group. They said ICE told them they blocked the hotline because it wasn’t on an approved list maintained by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
No matter why the hotline was shut down, Freedom for Immigrants isn’t planning on staying quiet. The group penned a letter of support to accompany their cease-and-desist letter, which was signed seven producers and actors from Orange Is the New Black and more than 100 organizations. Netflix, for its part, did not provide MTV News with comment.
“The line’s termination undermines trust and accountability of government institutions, dissuades public service by community organizations, and further isolates vulnerable detained individuals,” the letter, signed by OITNB producer Tara Herrmann and actors Guerrero, Vicci Martinez (Daddy), Emily Tarver (CO McCullough), Alysia Reiner (Fig), Laura Gómez (Blanca), and Beth Dover (Linda Ferguson).
Gómez told the LA Times that she was “heartbroken” that the hotline was shut down.
“Now we see life mimic art in the most destructive way,” she told the newspaper. “I wish this were more of a fictional situation and we were exaggerating reality, but it’s kind of the other way around.”