Update Tuesday 2/13:
Since publishing this original story, a representative of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has confirmed that this facility is a sub-field office of the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division, and that it does contain a facility represented in ICE data as the Fresno Hold Room. In response to the story, the agency has also posted a sign on its office door. For a full update on the story, listen to this interview with reporter Kerry Klein on 2/13.
Government buildings are usually pretty easy to spot, with big signs featuring their names and logos. Even agencies with some of the most sensitive information share their whereabouts. But in downtown Fresno, one government office flies so far under the radar that most who walk past would never know what’s behind its mirrored glass windows. The secretive nature of this office is drawing concern from immigration lawyers and advocates.
The building is located on L. St. downtown. It looks pretty innocuous: Beige brick, red trim, and tall reflective windows. There’s no sign on the door. In fact, nothing at all out front, except the street number, a wheelchair-accessible sticker, and a keycard reader with an intercom.
But there are security cameras, at least seven of them around the building, and a handful of secured roll-top garage doors where vehicles with government license plates rumble in and out. On the day I visit, a van parked out front reads “Department of Homeland Security.”
“It's really a building with some mirrored windows across from a hotel and you have no idea that it's a federal agency in there,” says Angelica Salceda, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Fresno. She’s never been inside the building, but her clients have. “What we know of is from different stories that people have shared of where they end up getting processed,” she says.
This office is run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a law enforcement agency within Homeland Security. It’s neither an administrative office nor a long-term detention center, but something in-between.
“If someone gets detained here in Fresno or a nearby county, they'll likely get sent to the L. St. location, get processed,” she says. “From there, that's when they would be sent to another detention facility.”
This office is the first waypoint for many individuals ICE has picked up for allegedly being in the country illegally. According to attorneys like Salceda, detainees fill out paperwork and rarely spend more than a few hours in the office before being moved to longer-term facilities or being deported.
As far as we know, what’s happening here is not illegal, and it’s not all that uncommon. But this facility, like many, is completely unmarked, and it’s not listed on the ICE website. Like Salceda, most attorneys we spoke to found out about it only through clients. And this shroud of secrecy has lawyers and advocates concerned about due process and civil rights.
The office is at 733 L St. near Bitwise and the Hilton Doubletree Hotel. According to a lease obtained by Valley Public Radio, it’s about 10,000 square feet in size, and the U.S. government rents it from United Security Bank, which occupies the rest of the building.
As for what’s inside? The ICE press office was unresponsive to multiple interview requests for this story, so I decided to visit the office myself. At about 9:30am last Thursday, I walked up to the mirrored front door and rang the buzzer.
The man who answered the intercom confirmed: Yes, this is indeed an ICE office. What happens at this office, and why is there no sign outside? He’s not at liberty to say. Can I come in and get a tour? No. He finally cut me off after about 30 seconds.
Someone who has been inside is Camille Cook, an immigration attorney in Fresno. She says: Picture waiting in the reception area of a tiny doctor’s office. “There's a window there where you would think that there would be a person that would be helping people, but there's no person at the window,” she says. “And there's a locked door and so you basically sit there and wait for somebody to come out of the door.”
Another immigration attorney recalled seeing three or four holding cells beyond that locked door.
ICE does not make much information public about its facilities or detainees. But within data provided by the agency via the Freedom of Information Act, we found a detention center known as the “Fresno Hold Room” that may be this facility. Some local attorneys have heard this name, others haven’t, but their clients’ stories are consistent with hold room policies, which state detainees can be held no longer than 12 hours.
According to the data, in an 11-month period of 2015, close to 1,100 detainees passed through the Fresno Hold Room. Another 2,600 passed through a hold room in Bakersfield. Those were two out of a network of 100 hold rooms used throughout the U.S. that year, within a total of more than 600 short and long-term facilities. On ICE’s website, however, the agency lists only 112 detention centers—and none of them are hold rooms.
Cook argues this lack of transparency extends beyond basic public information. The families of detainees don’t always know where their loved ones are. And, in many cases, Cook says ICE may transfer her clients out of the Fresno facility before she can get there to speak with them. “They are not a service agency and they are not very friendly to attorneys,” she says. “And that can make it very difficult sometimes to make sure that my clients receive the due process that they have a right to under the sixth and fourth amendments to the U.S. constitution.”
Restricted access to legal representation is a common concern among immigration lawyers familiar with this office. Detainees may spend an insignificant amount of time at the facility, but significant things happen there.
Hamid Yazdan is a Berkeley-based immigration attorney and a member of a new regional rapid response network that aims to keep attorneys on call for new detainees. Those first few hours of detention are critical, he argues, because that’s when detainees can be coerced into signing away their rights. “Someone may waive their right to a hearing in front of a judge, or they may waive their right to actually explore and articulate why they're afraid to return to their home country,” he says. “And if they do waive those rights they may be deported.”
Clara Long is an attorney with the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch. She studies human rights abuses against non-U.S. citizens, and secretive ICE facilities like these have long been on her radar. “If you wanted to limit people’s access to attorneys, then this is the system that you would set up,” she says.
She echoes local attorneys’ concerns about due process, and she fears an increased reliance on short-term facilities like these. ICE’s acting director last fall foreshadowed more arrests after California passed its sanctuary state law, and language in ICE’s draft 2018 budget asked to increase the time limit that detainees can spend in short-term facilities.
“That ask is indicative of an administration that’s sort of ramping up to use short-term detention even more than it’s currently being used,” she says.
But whether ICE will ever provide enough information to know about it is another question.
Reporter Jeffrey Hess also contributed to this report.