Unreachable Cellphones: Limitations of Collect Calls for Immigrant detainees in Federal Detention Centers


Undocumented immigrant detainees in federal detention centers are experiencing great difficulties in reaching their family or relatives in their home country. As cellphone ownership in less evenly developed countries becomes more ubiquitous, many people are only reachable via their cellphones. Collect calls to landlines, however, are the only communication option for immigrant detainees. The billing infrastructure for collect calls is set up so that the recipient of the phone call incurs the costs, and these costs can only be tracked and billed through landlines.

Court translators and lawyers who work closely with detained immigrants have recounted that detainees often report that they are simply unable to reach their family members because of the limited use of collect calls to landlines. Oftentimes detainees need to reach their families for help in obtaining paperwork, advice on whether they should fight to stay in the country or not, and for emotional purposes. Detainees who cannot reach their families often experience emotional paralysis and confusion with legal bureaucracy. Often this leads to bottlenecks in the legal process for determining the detainee's legal options. With detainees unable to reach their families in their home country or even in the USA, many of them are staying for unnecessarily prolonged periods in detention centers.

When I conducted fieldwork in an immigrant sending communities in rural Mexico, I spoke to families who didn't know where a member of their family was located and from deportees that were housed in the detention centers. Families told me that after finding out from the community in the US that their father or brother was picked up by police or federal agents, most of the time they didn't hear from them. Deported immigrants have also recounted to me that once they were put in detention centers, they often found it difficult or impossible to reach their family members in the US and Mexico. In many cases, after months or weeks of no communication, individuals just showed up in their home village after being released into Mexico by federal agents. Another layer of complication is added when detainees are taken to another detention center if the center closest to where they were picked up is full. An undocumented immigrant picked up in New York City that should be housed in the detention centers in Manhattan or New Jersey, could be sent to Arizona or Texas. This makes it even more difficult for detainees to reach a personal contact in their immediate US-based networks.

With more research, I  would like to explore a temporary technology based solution. The long-term goal would be for this research to result in a change of federal policy for how detainees and possibly all inmate make phone calls. However, this will be long and difficult process since many telecommunication companies hold profitable legacy collect call contracts with the government. If you are interested in the short-term goal of creating a tech-based solution or even the long-term policy change goal, let's talk!