‘We’re just talking about fair access to the system’: the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project helps people detained by ICE

Illustration by Blair Gauntt

Update: In October 2020, the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project changed their name to Prairielands Freedom Fund. “This name change reflects the incredible growth of our organization’s work over the last four years, as well as the expansion of our work in response to the incredible urgency of this moment,” the organization wrote in a press release.

The increase in the number of arrests by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of people suspected of being in the country illegally has made headlines over the past year, but less attention has been paid to what happens next.

Since President Trump took office, there have been reports around the country that ICE is setting much higher bonds for people awaiting an immigration hearing than in previous year. Because those hearings are often scheduled for three to five years after someone is arrested, these higher bonds effectively means detainees without access to ready funds will serve a jail term before they are ever found guilty of an offense.

“Your socio-economic status should not be the factor that holds you back from getting out of detention before your trial,” said Natalia Espina, co-founder and director of community affairs for the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project.

The project provides money for bonds in selected immigration cases. During 2017, its first year, the project provided bond money for four people detained by ICE.

Whether the person detained by ICE does or doesn’t have the proper legal status to be in the U.S., the effects of detention are the same, Julia Zalenski, an attorney and one of EICBP’s founders, explained.

“Being kept from their jobs, being unable to pay rent or pay their mortgage, and maintain all those important aspects of life that require daily attention,” Zalenski said. “The psychological aspects of it, the fear people feel being held in detention, are tremendous as well.”

“It’s scary, especially for people facing removal to countries they may or may not know well, or may or may not feel safe in. [People] facing long-term separation from their loved ones,” she added. “Whereas, if someone is released, they are able to return to their families, they are able to maintain the stability of their lives while they consider their options.”

Working with various groups that assist immigrants, EICBP seeks to identify ICE detainees who meet a certain profile.

“We do have an application that is intended to screen for two different things. One is eligibility for relief — whether they have the potential right to remain in the United States long term,” Zalenski said. “The idea being that it’s important to use resources for people who would lose out on a right they would otherwise be entitled to.” The other thing EICBP is looking for is “ties to the community, someone who’s lived here a really long time, and has family ties here.”

EICBP grew out of series of discussions following the 2016 election, organized by Professor Bram Elias, director of the immigration practice of the University of Iowa Law School Clinic Programs.

“The UI law clinic invited a group of people from the community to come together to start to put together a plan” to respond the plans candidate Trump announced regarding immigration and immigrants, Espina told Little Village.

The meetings didn’t focus on the issue of bond — it was one of several topics along with DACA, temporary protected status for certain immigrant groups and how schools can better help immigrant children. It was during a January meeting last year that Elias discussed the idea of creating a program to help detainees get access to the money needed for bond.

“A few of us said, we’ll go ahead and try this, not knowing exactly what we were getting into at the time,” Espina recalled. The project was launched that same month.

EICBP, which received nonprofit status in March, is still a small, all-volunteer organization, but Espina said pubic reaction to it has been encouraging.

“I feel that we’ve have really amazing support for being so very young,” Espina said.

But even after the funds are provided to pay an individual’s bond, there are still other challenges, Espina points out.

If a person is detained by the local ICE office, which is located in Cedar Rapids, the bond cannot be paid there. It must be paid, in person, at the regional ICE administrative office in Omaha, Nebraska.

“That’s a five hour drive from here,” Espina said. And it’s also intimidating for family members or friends of a detainee worried their own immigration status might be questioned. They could be detained while seeking to pay the bond. “You are walking into the lion’s den,” Espina said.

ICE does not accept electronic payments or wire transfer of funds to post bonds.

And once the order to release a detainee has been issued, there’s still the matter of picking up the person. Regardless of where ICE arrests someone in Iowa, the person is detained at the Hardin County Jail in Eldora, a drive of almost three hours from the Iowa City area.

The jail in Eldora is also the focus of a new undertaking by EICBP. In conjunction with the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, EICBP is starting project to provide detainees with visitors.

Some of the detainees never have visitors, Espina explained. Although some of the conversations during visits may involve informing detainees of their rights — detainees, unlike defendants in the criminal court system, are not automatically provided with attorneys — the emphasis is on providing a human connection for people who may feel forgotten.

“The number one goal is to show some human compassion towards people who are behind bars,” she said.

Visitation projects like this already exist around the country, and according to Espina, local bond organizations like the EICBP are now starting up across the U.S. as well.

“People see there is definitely a need for it,” she said.

“We’re just talking about fair access to the system, as it currently exists,” Zalinski said. “Which, when you put it that way, feels like a pretty low bar.”

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