Cuffs Too Tight: The Shackling and Evacuation of Detained Immigrants during Hurricane Irma

Dec. 5, 2017

By: Lily Hartmann, AI Justice Jonathan Demme Human Rights Advocate

Masiel, a Costa Rican native and victim of gender-based violence, is waiting out her remaining time in the United States at the Broward Transitional Center (BTC), an immigration detention center in South Florida. She’s agreed to voluntary departure, but her deportation flight won’t be her first experience with ICE Air. As a matter of fact, she and several other women at BTC call themselves the “Texas Survivors” - and for good reason.

As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, all detainees were told late one September evening they were going to be evacuated – but they weren’t told to where. Each detainee was shackled and handcuffed, their hands chained to a belt at their waists. People’s arms ached in discomfort after spending hours in handcuffs. Masiel told me, “The handcuffs and shackles were put on so tight they left us with marks. I and many other women had swollen ankles after wearing shackles for many days. We were treated as if we were criminals.” Pregnant and elderly women were subjected to this treatment, too.

At dawn they took a two-hour bus ride to Miami International Airport. “Because ICE would not release either of our hands from the handcuffs, we had to help our friends pull down their pants to go the bathroom.” Even more humiliating, ICE agents watched the women as they used the bathroom on the plane. Those who refused to be humiliated in this manner defecated or bled on themselves.

They were also hungry because they hadn’t eaten in hours. Masiel remembers, “We were so hungry that many of us started chanting ‘Comida! Comida!’ (Food!, Food!)…my mouth and lips were dry and almost white from being so thirsty.” Immigrants with diabetes or other chronic medical conditions found the evacuation even more challenging. When finally given food while on the plane, the detained immigrants remained handcuffed, many struggling to feed themselves.

When Masiel asked what they were do if there was emergency on board the plane, the flight attendant laughed and made the sign of the cross. Then, the pilots notified the ICE guards that the plane had a mechanical problem. So, the plane returned to South Florida where mechanics found the aircraft beyond repair, and the same evacuation process was repeated the next day. “I do feel the handcuffs and shackles were tighter the second time around.” This time the detainees made it to Texas, where they would stay for almost two weeks before returning to Florida as the state recovered from the fallout of the storm.

ICE is placing immigrants’ lives in jeopardy by shackling detained immigrants during air transportation, which further traumatizes and criminalizes those in custody. As Masiel awaits her next ICE Air trip – this one out of the United States – she hopes we understand the emotional toll it takes on immigrants. “We are human beings and deserve to be safe too.”

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AI Justice is an award-winning non-profit law and advocacy firm that protects and promotes the basic human rights of immigrants. In Florida and on a national level, we champion the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; advocate for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence; serve as a watchdog on immigration detention practices and policies; and speak for immigrant groups who have particular and compelling claims to justice.