The basement of a federal building in downtown Austin, 10 floors below U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s office. Space in a “fashionable” South Carolina office park. Branches of major hotel chains in Los Angeles, Miami and Seattle.
These facilities rarely appear together on government lists, but they all have something in common: They’re nodes in a little-known network of holding areas where people in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spend hours or even days on their way to other locations.
The government’s now-suspended “zero tolerance” policy drew attention to the country’s vast and often obscured immigration detention apparatus, particularly to a billion-dollar private contracting industry and to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing centers that migrants call “ice boxes.”
But hidden in plain sight across the country, hotels, federal buildings and office space are used by ICE as way stations for immigrants — and their existence often comes as a surprise to the unsuspecting civilians who work or live nearby.
Case in point: Patrons of a budget hotel in Southern California have for months chronicled their shock at seeing what they think are security guards patrolling the hallways and detainees being shuffled on and off vans in the parking lot. “Prisoner layover?” asked one guest, in an online review of the hotel from July 2017.
“Security sitting straight across from my room as if (it were) a prison,” reads another evaluation of the hotel from September 2017. “I was informed inmates from the prisons stay there and are monitored there. Creepy. Scary!!! Worst stay in my life.”
Elsewhere, in Texas, ICE activity often plays out right outside the centrally located J.J. “Jake” Pickle Federal Building where Cruz and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, have offices. If the building’s occupants were to peer outside their windows in the afternoon, they might catch sight of vans loaded with immigrants heading south to detention facilities or to the border.
A cinder block structure a half-mile from the state Capitol, the Pickle building houses a variety of federal offices, including the Internal Revenue Service and ICE, which runs enforcement and administrative activity out of the same structure. But though the entrance is manned by guards and a metal detector, few know about the cells in the basement that lawyers say are a frequent stopover for immigrants destined to be deported, released or transported to detention facilities.
“It’s like an office really, not much different than an office — except that it has a couple of jail cells,” said Austin immigration attorney Chito Vela. “That’s where they interview them, fingerprint them, take their photograph and then they decide whatever they’re going to do with them there.”
The basement has an industrial feel, like a boiler room, Vela said. Still, “you would have no idea that that was going on in the basement — I was kind of shocked myself when I first found out about it.”
All told, at least 80 hospitals and 150 holding locations — scattered across the country — have played host to people in ICE custody over the last decade, records show. Some of the facilities are unmarked processing areas where migrants transferred from local jails under detainers, or picked up by ICE, are kept until the agency can bus them to longer-term detention facilities. Hotels and hospitals are also used in narrow circumstances, like when an immigrant needs medical attention, or when a parent and child are going to be held overnight and there is no family detention center nearby.
Critics decry these facilities as “black sites,” whose locations are papered over by an agency prone to secrecy. But in cases like the California hotel, ICE’s tendency to release little information has led unsuspecting bystanders to believe sinister activity is afoot — when they’re in fact just observing routine agency operations.
ICE officials did not respond to questions about the temporary facilities. They have said in the past that the facilities are meant to hold migrants for short periods, and that broadcasting more information about the locations could open up agents who work there to burdensome and pestering calls from the public.
“Does ICE have ‘secret’ detention facilities? NO!” an ICE official told a Colorado news outlet in 2010. “ICE sub-offices around the country have temporary holding cells where the arrested or transferred detainees can remain secure while they are processed for transfer to a longer-term detention facility.”
‘It’s like: Where the hell are they?’
While ICE doesn’t publicize its far-flung web of temporary holding areas, a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gave an official glimpse into the short-term layovers migrants encounter on their way to jails, prisons or other detention facilities.
At the time, some 84 percent of people were booked into ICE custody through temporary facilities that the agency calls holding areas and staging locations — way stations normally without showers or sleeping quarters that can hold people for less than a day. Sometimes attached to field offices that ICE uses for administrative and operations work, these holding facilities more often share space with smaller, unlisted offices whose locations, like the holding facilities themselves, are seldom known to the public.
Still, in 2009, a list of some 160 “subfield offices” was released to Jacqueline Stevens, a political theorist, who had stumbled upon one of them in North Carolina. Now a professor at Northwestern University and founding director of the Deportation Research Clinic there, Stevens was retracing the steps of an American citizen who had been detained by ICE and deported, and she saw that some of his documents were stamped with the address of an office park outside Raleigh.
She punched the location into her GPS, and arrived at an unmarked building next to a production facility for Oxford University Press.
“If he hadn’t been in the car with me, I probably would have thought it was some kind of Google map error and turned around,” she said. “It was just this brick building and we went behind it to turn around and there were all these ICE cars there, white vans.”
“This is it,” Stevens said he told her insistently.
When Stevens eventually received the list of subfield offices, the North Carolina office park was on it, as was a suite in a Los Angeles skyscraper, space in a food hall in New York’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood, and 25 different locations in Texas, including the Pickle building. Eight years later, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national nonprofit, used open records laws to get a similar catalog of places people in ICE custody have been held since 2009.
“They’re off the grid,” said Stevens, of the subfield offices. Because the facilities act as temporary depots, they’re not included on government websites that track detainees’ locations, and they are exempt from guidelines that suggest detention facilities should allow phone calls and meet other standards, she said.
Even in federal facilities where ICE has office space, Stevens said, most people don’t know “there are actually people locked up there.”
During the hours someone is held in a temporary facility, “It’s like: Where the hell are they?” said Stephanie Taylor, an Austin immigration attorney, who has had clients shuttled through the Austin Pickle building. A man who was recently processed there told Taylor that he was offered a sandwich, a water bottle and a phone call — and then put on a van to a detention center in Pearsall. Another van left the facility with his stepson on board, headed for Mexico.
“It can be a really scary time” for their family members and lawyer, she said.
A ‘mundane’ explanation
Critics say the location of these temporary facilities is shrouded in the same secrecy as ICE’s long-term detention centers, which frequently bar visitors from bringing even pen and paper into their visitation rooms.
The lack of transparency can “embolden government officials to act as though nobody is paying attention to what they’re doing,” Stevens said. “Without expectation of oversight, there’s no expectation of accountability.”
The agency’s secrecy can also leave civilians alarmed or conspiratorial when they see ICE activity unfold in places they don’t expect.
Take the unusual arrangement ICE has with the California hotel, a 75-room budget option located just behind a freeway.
Advocates in the state say ICE will book migrants into hotel rooms when there is no nearby bed space, and at a price point often cheaper than keeping them in detention facilities, that can cost hundreds of dollars per day. But the California hotel, a nondescript taupe structure with a green roof, appears to be one of the only ones regularly used by the agency, and records show it has had thousands of migrants booked in over the last few years.
According to local lawyers, the hotel began receiving regular business from ICE several years ago, when a surge of Haitian refugees clogged the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Most of the Haitians were allowed to enter on humanitarian grounds and were trying to head north or east to stay with family members already in the United States.
The influx pushed to capacity the churches and nonprofits that normally shelter asylum-seekers as they get oriented to the country, the lawyers said. And with no family detention centers in the state, ICE turned to the hotel as a short-term option for migrants, particularly those who were pregnant or accompanied by young children.
The explanation for ICE’s use of the hotel is “mundane,” said California attorney Ginger Jacobs, who said she’s received calls from curious observers who want to know “what sinister thing is going on.”
An ICE spokesperson said the agency has housed families overnight at the California hotel on rare occasions when they “are being transferred to another city and flights were unavailable the same day.” The spokesperson said they hadn’t done so in months.
Jacobs and immigrant rights’ advocates say the hotel is a solution to a regional problem, and an alternative more humane than the detention facilities that can feel like jails, right down to the razor wire and detainee uniforms.
Still, in the years since the arrangement began, managers of the 2.5-star hotel have tried to allay the fears their guests detail in online reviews, at times writing: “There is nothing to worry about nor is anything wrong going on and we can tell you that they are not keeping prisoners of any kind here.”
That hasn’t stopped the rumors that the hotel is a hotbed of nefarious activity — rumors spurred by guests who have said in reviews and interviews with The Texas Tribune that they saw uniformed officers lead people into the hotel at night, and load them onto buses to depart in the morning.
“Shower; hot water … good pressure … thumbs up. Major con though,” reads one 2017 review. “Why were there five homeland (security)/border patrol guards in our hallway!!!”
Disclosure: Northwestern University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.