In a letter sent to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtained by BuzzFeed News, about 150 Democratic members of Congress argued that the practice of charging "exorbitant" prices to place phone calls from immigrant detention violates ICE's national standards.
Detained immigrants are able to call specific lawyers and government help lines for free, according to the agency's telephone access standards.
The standards also state that facilities should enable detainees to make direct or free calls to "immediate family or others for detainees in personal and family emergencies," and that they should have "equitable access to reasonably priced telephone services" — which the letter from Congress points out.
For anyone else, detainees or the people they are contacting are responsible for the cost of the phone call.
Trying to talk to your child after being forcibly separated at the border, often resulting in weeks of no contact, should quantify as an emergency, the lawmakers said.
"In June at the GEO immigration detention center in Aurora, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez and I visited with three devastated mothers. Through their tears, they described horrors that no parent should ever have to go through," said Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado who helped pen the letter and is running for governor. "The mothers recounted not knowing where their children were, followed by only minimal contact with them, being forced to pay high costs for what should be free phone calls."
The letter comes as the US government scrambles to reunify about 2,000 children still separated from their parents as a result of President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy before July 26, as ordered by a federal judge. On Friday, the Justice Department confirmed that about 450 children have been reunited with their parents, though how the administration plans to execute and streamline the process still remains murky.
After the president issued an executive order in June halting zero tolerance, distraught parents detailed the confusing and frustrating experience of trying to find and get in touch with their children, many of whom are now scattered across the US, through a government-sponsored 800-NUMBER.
Once they do track them down, many detainees are paying anywhere from 25 cents to $8 a minute to talk to their children, according to the Texas Tribune and NPR — a steep price for cash-strapped detainees to repeatedly pay. When they can afford to, the calls are short and sparse, usually lasting about 10 minutes.
As the Tribune has reported, a few major, private companies dominate the telecommunication services across the country's vast web of detention and correctional facilities, greatly profiting from the influx of detained immigrants funneled into centers to await immigration proceedings.
Forcing anxious parents — many of whom have no idea where their children are and have not seen them for weeks — to pay the steep rates exploits a vulnerable population and "is clearly against agency standards," Congress members wrote.
"As if the Trump administration’s decision to separate families wasn’t cruel enough, the idea there would be any barriers to basic communication is outrageous, and must be corrected immediately," Sen. Patty Murray, who helped spearhead the letter, told BuzzFeed News.
The Democrat from Washington said she visited mothers in a detention center in her home state and heard heartbreaking stories about difficulties in trying to talk to their children.
In one court filing from June 22 that was cited by the Tribune, a Guatemalan mother at a Texas detention center described trying to get in contact with her three children, ages 2, 6, and 13, but "the calls are very expensive."
"I am only to call when I have money, but when I do not have money, I am not able to communicate with my children," she declared, adding that the calls are sporadic and often the phones do not work. "In one month I only received one free call from the center."
ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the immigration agency, have vehemently denied reports that parents have to pay to call their children while they are in the government's care.
"Calls between detained parents in ICE custody and their children are facilitated at no charge to detainees. This is the case for children who are currently in the custody of the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (HHS/ORR) and those who have been placed with a sponsor by HHS," Katie Waldman, a spokesperson for the DHS, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Since children in government custody do not have 24-hour access to phones, calls with their parents have to be coordinated by ICE and Health and Human Services officials, she added, stressing that they are arranged "at least twice a week" and are free. In some cases, parents can video conference with their children.
When asked about reports detailing high, per-minute fees for phone calls to children, Waldman agreed it was "possible" that occurred when parents were trying to call children who were no longer in federal custody.
However, lawmakers say that detained parents shouldn't have to pay at all to get ahold of their children.
"Parents fleeing violence to save their children’s lives should be treated like refugees and protected, but instead we treat them like profit centers to be nickled and dimed," said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez from Illinois. "As a country we can do better and we must."