LOS ANGELES--Over the past two years, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its contractors have retaliated against attorneys and volunteers who criticized the agency or participated in protests by illegally barring them from visiting people in detention, a violation of the First Amendment.

Today, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)—a national advocacy group for immigration detention visitors—along with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the pro bono support of the law firm Sidley Austin LLP wrote to ICE and its contracting agencies requesting that they stop retaliating against visitors who publicly criticize the U.S. immigration detention system or face legal action.

In May, Christina Fialho, an attorney and co-executive director of CIVIC, was denied access to her clients at the Adelanto Detention Facility near Los Angeles after participating in a peaceful vigil outside the facility run under contract by the GEO Group. Fialho had also been denied entry to Adelanto earlier after participating in another peaceful vigil outside.

Last month, ICE and the Etowah County Alabama Sheriff terminated CIVIC’s affiliated visitation program. This termination came shortly after CIVIC participated in a peaceful event outside the Etowah County Detention Center and filed a complaint on behalf of 20 detainees against the facility--citing a pattern of routine assaults, race-based harassment and inadequate medical care.

"When we see abuse in detention, it is our duty as Americans to speak up," Fialho said. “By denying us access whenever we do expose abuse, ICE has tried to make us choose between our First Amendment rights and visiting our friends and clients in immigration detention. This is not a choice our government can legally ask us to make."

CIVIC and the other signatories to the letters are demanding that ICE and its contractors, specifically GEO Group and the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department, confirm in writing that they will clarify their policies to reflect that attorneys and other visitors to all immigration detention facilities cannot be denied access in retaliation for any expression protected by the First Amendment, including peaceful demonstrations.

With 40 affiliated groups across the country, CIVIC helps facilitate faith-based groups and other community members to meet with people in immigration detention, many of whom are separated from their families and suffer from extreme loneliness and depression.

Visitation programs have always feared speaking up when they see injustices and abuses in immigration detention facilities for fear of retaliation from ICE or the facilities. In 2013, ICE shut down three visitation programs in Southern California in retaliation against CIVIC and two of its member organizations, the Friends of Adelanto Detainees and the Friends of Orange County Detainees, for their media presence on blogs and other websites.

Last year ICE shut down a fourth CIVIC-affiliated visitation program at the Otay Detention Center in San Diego after the program raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse at the facility. ICE also shut down the Friends of Broward County Detainees, a CIVIC-affiliated visitation program at the Broward Transitional Center in Florida last year. The program’s leaders had presented testimony criticizing the detention system at a Congressional Hearing in Broward County hosted by Florida Congressmen Joe Garcia and Ted Deutch.

“CIVIC and its affiliated organizations and volunteers have endured a troubling pattern of retaliation for exercising First Amendment rights to voice concerns about the treatment of immigrants in detention,” said Michael Kaufman, staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “GEO’s and ICE’s denials of attorney Fialho’s access to clients at the Adelanto Detention Facility clearly violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on content and viewpoint discrimination.”

Read the letter to ICE and the GEO Group here.