by Olivia Pasquarelli

In 2013, Freedom for Immigrants launched its National Immigration Detention Hotline. Featured on the TV show Orange Is the New Black, the hotline receives between 600 and 14,500 calls per month in a variety of languages and relies on the services of multilingual volunteers across the nation.

The hotline monitors reports of abuse, connects detained people with family members, provides advocacy, and enables people in detention to share their stories. Amanda Diaz leads the initiative as the National Hotline Manager. Despite a busy schedule of onboarding volunteers, coordinating shifts, and documenting content, she was able to share her experiences with IMM Print contributer Olivia Pasquarelli.

Olivia Pasquarelli: You started your new role with FFI in September, and have likely spent a lot of hours on the hotline yourself. Tell us about what those first few calls were like.

Amanda Diaz: I began taking hotline shifts when I started in this position so that I could understand what hotline volunteers were going through. I wanted to better support them and determine what was working and what wasn’t so I could tweak the program. I think my biggest lesson learned when I first hopped on a call was a really intense realization of my own privilege as someone who is not inside a detention center. I have to be very intentional and cautious about what I say. For example (and I share this story a lot with new hotline volunteers), on my very first call I answered with, “Hi! How are you doing?” For us who are not in detention, that’s a normal question to ask. The person responded with “What the heck? I’m terrible.” At that moment, I realized I had to be way more intentional with the words I used.

OP: What are some of the common issues that callers talk about?

AD: We get a lot of folks calling to request legal support. Regionally, the South is notorious for not having enough legal service providers since new detention centers keep popping up there.

Other callers request commissary deposits. Immigrants in detention get terrible food. We have reports of food being rotten, of food containing mold and maggots. People in detention depend on commissary funds to purchase other food. But corporations mark up the prices to profit from people’s pain and suffering.

We also get a huge volume of calls from people reporting abuse. That’s really the biggest and most important arm of the hotline, I believe. ICE maintains a regime of silence; they profit from people not speaking up about the abuse they experience. The hotline is a window into these egregious cases.

We get calls about physical and sexual abuse. Every type of abuse that you can think of, people in detention are experiencing it. People report not having access to basic hygiene necessities and clean clothes. Now with COVID, we’ve gotten so many calls saying there’s no PPE, there’s no hand sanitizer, nobody is cleaning the bathrooms, there’s no testing. Someone told me that they feel like petri dishes, which I feel is a very clear example of how they’re treated inside.

OP: Is there someone you've forged a particular bond with during your time on the hotline? Tell us about it.

AD: I had a call yesterday with someone who grew up in LA. I have a lot of family in LA and we just talked about being Latino in LA, about tacos and food and growing up in this country as a person of color. It was a really powerful conversation that meant a lot to me.

I think a part of the reason why the hotline is so powerful is because of the bravery of people inside who are able to call and report the things they’re going through. That takes such courage. Even when someone is sharing something that is so terrible to them, the fact that they trust you with that story is priceless and powerful and actively goes against the oppressive system that we are trying to dismantle.

OP: How do you feel after a hotline shift? What stays with you?

AD: That’s a feeling that I’m still trying to process and I think a lot of volunteers are also still trying to process. I’m really trying to find mechanisms to take care of my mental health because these are challenging calls to hear. Sometimes every single call is terrible news. It’s very rare to hear positive news.

I feel a lot of anger, too, which makes sense. I’m just so angry with our current system and the way we treat immigrants. I’m upset and angry about folks not being able to get out when it’s their legal right, when they have absolutely no reason to be inside. I feel angry when some attorneys don’t represent people in detention in the right way or scam them and take their money. There are just so many emotions of sadness about what they’re going through and anger towards the larger system.

I get into a rapid response mode of ‘I had this shift, now what is it that we can do to help this person?,’ which sometimes leads me down a rabbit hole. It’s really hard to try and provide someone with the direct support they need while also taking a step back and seeing the system as a larger issue.

OP: It must be hard to make promises to those who call, but have there been instances when you've been able to successfully advocate for someone? How so?

AD: One person called our hotline repeatedly about a terrible medical situation involving a botched surgery that was getting infected. We were able to work with him and other amazing organizations to get him released. He’s now with his two young children and his wife. It’s so important to celebrate these wins and those freedoms.

In Adelanto, California we filed a multi-individual Civil Rights and Civil Liberties complaint regarding the toxic chemicals that were being used as disinfectants in response to COVID-19. It caused chemical skin burns. As a result of this multi-individual complaint, there was a petition that surfaced overnight with thousands of signatures. It then prompted a California policymaker to write a letter to congress calling to “Free Them All,” which has never happened in the history of politics. Nobody has ever said Free Them All from detention. I think that’s truly a success.

OP: Finally, where do you see the future of the National Immigration Detention Hotline?  Do you have any long term goals to bring to your role in developing the future of the hotline?  

AD: So much of my job is supporting our volunteers through their calls and making sure the hotline remains a trustworthy source for people inside to report abuses and conditions. I think so much of it comes from volunteers feeling confident and feeling strong in their role. When that feels weak, it’s like a house of cards, and when the base is not strong and firm it does not allow for us to help people, and therefore report what we’re hearing, and therefore work with policymakers. The volunteers are really on the front line. They need to be strong,powerful and strategic in order for us to do transformative things on a much greater level. Therefore, the focus for me is really building a strong training manual for them, being able to be available for them when there are questions, being able to find the things that aren’t working effectively so that calls can become more effective and more streamlined.

At the same time I’m really centering on mindfulness and self-care and the importance of mental health because you can get a secondary trauma response as a result of being a hotline volunteer. So, I’m intentional about opening the conversation and supporting volunteers through difficult calls and creating mechanisms and support systems for them.

The hotline is such a powerful monitoring tool and tracking mechanism. I want more people to know about it. I want it to be a well-known structure that supports the immigrant’s rights movement and the abolition of detention centers. It’s such a centralized source of information, and such powerful stories and data come from the hotline and through the courage and bravery of those inside reporting. I truly believe that it can help us reach our goal of abolition detention in the near future.

Olivia's interview of Amanda Diaz is also available on Video and Audio.

Olivia Pasquarelli is a freelance writer. She resides in Rhode Island and writes fiction and poetry. She also writes for Ranker in their Weird History column and for her own blog about small business entrepreneurship:  She is a child of an immigrant and a passionate advocate for immigration reform.