by Olivia Pasquarelli

Jennaya Dunlap is the Immigration Detention Bond Coordinator for Freedom for Immigrants, and Christina Mansfield is FFI’s Co-Founder and Executive Director. Here, they talk about the basics of immigration bonds - and the challenges that come with helping to bond people out of detention.

Olivia Pasquarelli: Could you briefly describe what an immigration bond is? I'm interested in your perspective on the concept and the system.

Jennaya Dunlop: I think that in legal terms, the concept is similar to bail bonds on the criminal justice side. There are different types of ICE bonds for different purposes, but ultimately the pretext behind them is to ensure that there's compliance by a person who's been caught up in the immigration enforcement system to attend their court hearing, or it might be to make sure that the person complies with a voluntary departure order. So there are different reasons for bonds, but essentially they come to the same reasoning that’s behind the bail bond system in criminal court. We consider bonds and bail to be a form of ransom, withholding people's freedom in exchange for often exorbitant amounts of money.

OP: Christina, could you give us a brief introduction or a little bit of background on how you entered this field and what inspired you to work with Freedom for Immigrants?

Christina Mansfield: I co-founded the organization with Christina Fialho in 2012. A lot of our work in the early days was really focused on trying to raise awareness that detention even existed. In the Obama years there was a perception that everything was going really well. People weren't too concerned about this issue and they didn't really know about it. A lot of our work was focused on supporting people in detention directly and doing human rights monitoring. Just naturally in our conversations with people in detention, we figured out that some people are in detention just because they can't pay the cost of their bail bond. That was really disturbing so we started doing community fundraisers to raise money to get people released from detention. We started paying bonds in 2013 because it was a very impactful way to free people from the system. Our ideology has always been to free people from detention and then use the information that we learn from that process to advocate for the abolition of detention. That would include no bail and no bonds.

JD: In terms of my background, I was organizing against immigration enforcement in communities on the ground in the Empire region for the last 15 years. Part of that work eventually became the issue of bonds and, and recognition of the fact that it was impossible to carry out the fight against immigration enforcement without having the means to bond people out and get them back to their families. I ran the bond fund for another big organization in the Inland Empire for a couple years before joining Freedom for Immigrants.

OP: How are decisions made about bonding people out? When I was researching the system, I found that some people are not considered eligible for bonds at all. I was wondering what your experience with that process is like. Could you talk about particular restrictions and conditions?

JD: There is a category of people that fit within what's called mandatory detention. There are specific conditions that have to be met in order for somebody to be subject to mandatory detention. For instance, if they committed a specific type of crime, and they've been sentenced to a specific amount of time and/or they have a specific status. There's so much confusion on who is and who isn't subject to mandatory detention and so little guidance about it. It depends on the judge and where the court hearing is held. Obviously for us, we see the mandatory detention category as being something that is entirely inhumane and unjust.

We're talking about people who are being criminalized for having a past conviction and who already went through their sentence and complied with what they were required to do. It feels to us like a form of double punishment, which is something that is protected by the Constitution, but unfortunately it does not apply to immigration proceedings. The other category of people that are not able to get bond hearings are folks that are classed as arriving as aliens. It's the category we didn't see as much of during the Trump administration because they weren't letting anybody turn themselves in at the border, period. A lot of folks either had to try to cross some other way, or they were just stuck in Mexico, under the MPP program.

Historically, the number one way in which folks will seek asylum is by turning themselves in at the border. Unfortunately, when it happens now, they're considered to be outside of immigration judges’ jurisdiction. However, ICE can grant bond on their own terms. That's something that rarely happens given the culture of ICE. The only point in which they come under the jurisdiction of an immigration judge is if the area in which they're detained has some sort of litigation that forces their detention to be reexamined after six months.

CM: I have just a couple things to add here. Just for historical context, the mandatory detention provisions came in 1996 with two different laws. What we saw then was the immediate targeting of long-time lawful permanent residents in the United States being rounded up by ICE agents around the country and there was no way for them to protect themselves from a law that hadn't been written yet. If they decided to settle their case they didn't often didn't understand that it was going to have this immigration consequence later down the line.

OP: What’s the process for bonding out an individual? How much contact do you have with the individual or family that you're working with?

JD: I'm in charge of going through all the bond requests that we get every week and making sure that they actually have a bond set, making sure that we have the information that's required in order to even fill out the form that allows us to initiate the payment of a bond. Of course, we make sure that we have the funds for the bond. When it comes to the contact with the folks that are in detention, I rarely actually get to talk to them because it's expensive for them to make phone calls. We usually work through a combination of advocates, attorneys and family members. Our contact with the person takes place once he or she is out. We follow up to see if we can provide any additional support.

OP: Can you share any specific stories about people that Freedom for Immigrants has bonded out?

JD: One that particularly stands out to me is Okunlola’s case. Okunlola is a migrant from Nigeria who was detained by the police last year even though his case had already been closed during the Obama administration, so there was no reason for him to be in detention. He was racially profiled and singled out. He was treated, along with other Black migrants, far worse than those around him. He tried unsuccessfully to get bond set from the time that he was picked up in July through the end of October when he was finally able to get ICE to grant a $10,000 bond. A few weeks later we received the request for support.

We tried to post and immediately ICE came up with a reason as to why they would not release him. Their reasoning was that he had not turned in his passport. The Nigerian consul has very few locations in the US and they don't have one single location on the West Coast that doesn't require the person to appear in person. Obviously that's impossible when you're in detention. Even getting things like passport photos is completely impossible. His family fought to have his birth certificate recognized as legitimate proof of identity and they accepted it, stating that they would allow bond to move forward. But then almost immediately, they told us, okay, well actually, even though two days ago, we told you we would let you bond this person out we're not going to because he has his final court hearing coming up in two days. Throughout the month of November, December, January, and part of February, it was a constant battle with ICE. Every single time we would try to post bond for Okunlola, they would come up with a different reason why they weren't going to let him out. In February we filed a complaint against ICE for their treatment of him and the restriction of his release based on racial discrimination. Within less than 24 hours on a weekend, on a holiday weekend no less, they had already reached out to both the attorney and Okanlola himself, and promised to allow the bond to go through. This story highlights the amount of work that sometimes has to go into fighting back against the system that ostensibly allows people to win bond but in reality, it can be so much more complicated and so much more of a burden than anybody on the outside of the system can imagine.

OP: What is the most difficult thing that you face in your job? I'm sure there's lots of hurdles, but if you could choose one, what would it be?

JD: The lack of funds. All over the country, there are bond funds and everybody's struggling to get enough money to meet a massive need, even within the context of a lot of people being denied that opportunity. If there was one message I would want for folks to hear, it's that there is a need for money that can be used to pull people from the clutches of ICE, or as we call it, ransom. FFI is currently low on funding for bond, so I would encourage people to donate if you are able. We get 5-15 requests a week, often totaling well over $50,000, so every bit makes a difference!

OP: To end on a positive note, what is something about your job that brings you joy and the strength to continue on?

JD: I think for me, it's seeing people getting out. That moment of somebody being with their family and not having lost their case when they had a court hearing the next day. Just the hope of people being able to fight another day to get out of detention.

CM: For me, some of the most inspiring moments have been these moments of connection where someone we're bonding out in one state happens to be connected to someone else in our network who is advocating for them in another state, and other moments of synchronicity like that. Also, I’ve often had the experience of meeting family members in the bond office who are just trying to pay bonds on behalf of their family member. I've constantly experienced gross disparity in the way that I am treated compared to the way that other people are treated. I'm always treated like I might be a lawyer, so I get spoken to like I'm a 'ma'am', then they just lie to the next person they talk to and tell them all the wrong things. So over the years it's been a process of doing my best to help people get their family members out. That solidarity has been really important.  

Liv Pasquarelli graduated from Pratt Institute in 2016 with a BFA in Communication Design and Photography. In 2017, she launched her blog, The Indie Mood, which features news and reviews on indie beauty brands. She now works as a freelance copywriter creating SEO-optimized articles to bring traffic to businesses in a variety of industries. With over 5 years of online writing experience, she has worked closely in growing brands such as Autonomous and Jacque Mdigo Cosmetics. She moved from Brooklyn to Rhode Island in March of 2020, and has been working on improving and publishing her creative writing, including her poetry and short stories.