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"We Can Make Him Disappear": Immigration Officials Are Holding People In Secret, Unmarked Jails

In addition to publicly listed field offices and detention sites, ICE is holding prisoners in 186 unlisted, unmarked locations, many in suburban office parks or commercial spaces.

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Rafael Galvez, an attorney in Maine, explained why he would like ICE to release its entire list of subfield office addresses and phone numbers. "If they're detaining someone, I will need to contact the people on the list. If I can advocate on a person's behalf and provide documents, a lot of complications could be avoided."

Cary, a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina, has a typical subfield office at the rear of CentreWest Commons, an office park adjacent to gated communities, large artificial ponds and an Oxford University Press production plant. ICE's low-lying brick building with a bright blue awning has darkened windows, no sign and no US flag. People in shackles and handcuffs are shuffled in from the rear. The office complex has perhaps twenty other businesses, all of which do have signs. The agents, who are armed, might not wear uniforms and drive their passengers in unmarked, often windowless white vans. Even Dani Martinez-Moore, who lives nearby and coordinates the North Carolina Network of Immigrant Advocates, did not know people were being held there until she read about it on my blog.

In late October 2008, Mark Lyttle, then 31, was held in the Cary office for several hours. Lyttle was born in North Carolina, and the FBI file ICE had obtained on him indicated he was a US citizen. Lyttle used his time in the holding tank attempting to persuade the agents who had plucked him out of the medical misdemeanor section of a nearby prison, where he had been held for seventy-three days, not to follow through on the Cary office's earlier decision to ship him to Mexico. Lyttle is cognitively disabled, has bipolar disorder, speaks no Spanish and has no Mexican relatives. In response to his entreaties, a Cary agent "told me to tell it to the judge," Lyttle said. But Lyttle's charging document from the Cary office includes a box checked next to the boilerplate prohibition: "You may not request a review of this determination by an immigration judge."

Lyttle made enough of a fuss at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, that the agents there arranged for him to appear before a judge. But the checked box in the Cary paperwork meant he never heard from the nonprofit Legal Orientation Program attorneys who might have picked up on his situation. William Cassidy, a former ICE prosecutor working for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, ignored Lyttle's pleas and in his capacity as immigration judge signed Lyttle's removal order. According to Lyttle, Cassidy said he had to go by the sworn statements of the ICE officers.

Meanwhile, Lyttle's mother, Jeanne, and his brothers, including two in the Army, were frantically searching for him, even checking the obituaries. They were trying to find Lyttle in the North Carolina prison system, but the trail went cold after he was transferred to ICE custody. Jeanne said, "David showed me the Manila envelope [he sent to the prison]--'Refused'--and we thought Mark had refused it." Jeanne was crying. "We kept trying to find out where he was." It never crossed their minds that Mark might be spending Christmas in a shelter for los deportados on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

ICE spokesman Temple Black first told me the list was "not releasable" and that it was "law enforcement sensitive," but coordinator for community outreach Andrew Lorenzen-Strait e-mailed me a partial list of addresses and no phone numbers. I then obtained a more complete list, including telephone numbers, in response to a FOIA request. That list, received in November and dated September 2009, is about forty locations shy of the 186 subfield offices mentioned in the Schriro report and omits thirty-nine locations listed in an August ICE job announcement seeking applicants for immigration enforcement agents. These include ICE postings in Champlain, New York; Alamosa, Colorado; Pembroke Pines, Florida; and Livermore, California. The anonymous ICE official neither answered questions about why I was sent an incomplete list nor accounted for the disparity in official explanations of the list's confidentiality.