When the Hotline Goes Cold

When the Hotline Goes Cold
by Cindy Knoebel

“How you gonna help me, huh? HOW?”

The man on the line is calling from an immigration detention center. It is Thursday morning, and I am twenty minutes into my two-hour shift as a volunteer for a hotline used by detained immigrants.

He is angry—and I can’t blame him. He had called the hotline expecting I’d be able to patch him through to a family member, friend, or attorney, but instead I had to break the news that new policies prohibited me from connecting calls to anyone.

Before the new policies went live, I’d handle maybe twenty calls during my shift. Sometimes, the detainee called to request a visitor or to report a complaint or an incident of abuse. But the majority of callers (most of whom are men) knew the routine: they’d rattle off their A (alien) number, then provide me with the first name and phone number of the person they wanted to talk to. If the mother/wife/brother/attorney picked up, I’d connect the call and set a timer for the allotted five minutes. I’d remove my ear buds and, using the hotline’s online database, make a note in the person’s file. When the timer chimed, I’d tap the red disconnect icon on my iPhone.

Or not. While I didn’t eavesdrop on the calls, I couldn’t help but catch snippets of conversation. How’d mom’s surgery go? Did you call my lawyer yet? I got no money—why the hell can’t you send more? They’re transferring me—but I don’t know where or when. Don’t worry, babe, I promise I’ll be home soon. Kiss the kids for me.

Sometimes I heard yelling, pleading, sobbing. Sounds of indignation, resignation, desperation. My finger would hover over the disconnect button, and I’d wait, hoping another thirty seconds or minute—or two—might bridge the gap between hope and heartache, between kinship and isolation. Between life and death.

Since 2003, 179 men and women have died while in custody in ICE facilities. In 2017, three men confined at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California have died. Five attempted suicide. One succeeded.

Conditions in our country’s immigrant detention centers are well documented and deplorable: crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous. Medical care is often inadequate. Reports of discrimination, sexual abuse, and humiliation by guards are legion. A 2015 report by the U.S. Human Rights Commission concluded:

“While these immigrants migrate to the United States to escape harsh living conditions, once they cross the U.S. border without authorization and proper documentation, the federal government apprehends and detains these individuals in conditions that are similar, if not worse, than the conditions they faced from their home countries.”

So much for “Give me your tired, your huddled masses.” Today, we either turn those masses away, or lock them up and abuse them.

During one of my first shifts, a man called his sister, hungry. “They’re not providing us with the amount of calories they’re supposed to,” I overheard him telling her, just seconds before his five minutes expired. “And the food they serve us is rotten. I’m literally starving to death here.” I followed up by emailing a Department of Homeland Security complaint form to his sister to fill out and mail in.

Did it make a difference? Probably not.

The new policies were implemented only after the volume of calls to the hotline suddenly plummeted. The reason? Apparently ICE had blocked one of the two 4-digit extensions detainees used to call us on the facility’s free call system—and, in doing so, made it clear we were prohibited from connecting calls from inside the facility to the outside. We now worry that it’s only a matter of time before all calls to our hotline are blocked, further punishing and isolating those who’ve come to depend on us. During a recent conference call, hotline organizers and volunteers brainstormed ways to maintain the connections we’ve formed, provide more targeted, direct assistance to those who need it, and keep the lines of communication open. I’m heartened by the ideas that surfaced; we won’t go down without a fight.

But as I type this now, one hour into my shift, my phone is silent. I’ve had only one caller, the man who wanted to speak with his attorney. I told him I could only collect, document, and report information related to his case and his treatment at the facility.

“How you gonna help me, huh?” he’d asked. “HOW? You don’t help me call my lawyer, you don’t do nothing!” He snorted. “Nothing. That’s what you do.” There was more after that. I did my best to de-escalate the conversation. But it didn’t work, and eventually, after he began yelling at me, I hung up. Doubtless a more agile and skilled volunteer could have done better, could’ve defused the situation and found another way to help. Maybe a different volunteer would have ignored the new policy and connected him anyway.

Five minutes. That’s all he wanted.

I doodle on my notepad. I wonder what my “regulars”—Moses, Rich, Tariq—are up to today. I picture them walking in circles around a tiny, sunbaked recreation “yard” of poured concrete. Or shuffling, handcuffed, across an airport tarmac and into an ICE-chartered plane with a one-way ticket in their hands. Or sitting behind a Plexiglass window trying to make conversation with a loved one while guards listen to every word.

Finally, two minutes before my shift ends, my phone rings.

I take a deep breath. “Hi, this is Cindy,” I answer. “How may I help you today?” As the words leave my mouth, I’m hopeful. Maybe this time, I’ll be able to offer more than excuses. Maybe this time, he’ll ask a question I can answer. 

And if he has a message he desperately needs to deliver to his mother, his wife, or his cousin? I’ll ask for the number. I’ll take down the message. And I’ll make the call myself. He may be helpless, isolated and afraid. But I’m not. §


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Cindy Knoebel is a published writer living in Sausalito, CA. Her short stories have appeared in a half-dozen literary magazines, and she has also published interviews with individuals in detention and with the people and organizations striving to ease their burdens. She is a hotline volunteer and writer for an organization committed to ending immigrant detention.