Raising Bond for Detained Migrants: A Crucial Part of the Anti-Deportation Fight

Amid mounting evidence about the lasting impacts of immigration enforcement on immigrants, families and communities, local groups are taking action to reduce its harms in their particular community contexts. The Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, founded in Iowa City, Iowa, in early 2017, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit fund that pays bond for immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the eastern half of Iowa.

Iowa has a history of large-scale immigration raids in agricultural worksites including egg production farms and meat processing plants, most famously the 2008 immigration raid on a beef processing facility in Postville, Iowa, at the time the largest single-site immigration raid in US history. The Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project was founded in response to the change in presidential administration, and in anticipation of a revival of the worksite raids that still haunt immigrant communities throughout the state. Less than one year after the organization began paying bond for immigrant workers, worksite raids returned as feared, with an ICE raid on a precast concrete factory in rural Mount Pleasant, Iowa (population 8,400), resulting in the detention of 32 immigrant workers.

The Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project is one of a growing network of immigration bond funds throughout the country. These grassroots organizations are often affiliated with broader movements for bail reform and criminal justice reform. As someone who volunteers with the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, I sat down with two of the organization’s cofounders, Natalia Espina and Julia Zalenski, to learn more about their young organization and its impact.

Nicole Novak: How would you describe the people on behalf of whom you work?

We represent the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project (EICBP). We pay bond (bail) in immigration court for people who are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and at risk of deportation from the United States. Our project intervenes at a critical point in the immigration enforcement process, with the goal of ensuring that everyone has the best possible chance at a fair immigration proceeding regardless of their financial means or economic status. Being released from immigration detention significantly improves the chances that the person will ultimately receive relief from deportation and be granted lawful status in the United States. However, average bonds generally range from $3,000 to $7,000, with some set much higher, posing an insurmountable financial barrier for many detainees. Factors such as which immigration court jurisdiction an individual is designated to or set to appear in may determine substantial difference in bond amounts set, as demonstrated by recent TRAC data.

We seek to serve any eastern Iowa resident at risk of being detained by ICE and placed in removal proceedings. We seek to be as inclusive as possible with our project, and consider anyone with financial need eligible to receive our assistance. So far we have paid bond for 24 people, all of whom were undocumented. The total cost of these bonds was nearly $120,000, for an average of approximately $5,000 per person.

What is your experience with immigration raids?

EICBP was part of [the] local response to a workplace raid in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, which took place on May 9. On that day, immigration agents arrested 32 people working at a precast concrete facility, devastating the community on many levels. The men detained were separated from their families, including many young children; many families lost their primary source of financial stability; and the community experienced a lot of chaos and terror.

EICBP’s response to the Mt. Pleasant raid was the first time in which we had been faced with the task of responding to the need to pay immigration bond on a larger scale. Bonds were set starting at $10,000, despite the fact that many of the detained men had no prior criminal history and had extensive, long-standing ties to the community.

EICBP’s immediate raid response goal was to post bond for everyone who was bond-eligible. That goal required a capital campaign, which we called Free Them All and launched with the goal of raising enough money to free all bond-eligible detainees. Our goal also required us to make the difficult decision to wait to provide bond assistance until after an immigration judge had reviewed and redetermined the bonds set by ICE.

As a practical matter, waiting until after redetermination to pay bonds meant that each dollar raised went further– average bonds post-redetermination were closer to $5,000 than $10,000. It also meant that the detained men had to remain in custody for several weeks while redetermination hearings were pending, and exposed many of the inequities and barriers inherent in the immigration court system. For instance, immigration detainees are not entitled to court-appointed counsel, but having an attorney significantly increases the likelihood that a bond will be lowered at the redetermination hearing. Fortunately, in the case of the Mt. Pleasant raid, several non-profit organizations and private attorneys committed to representing all detainees in their bond proceedings on a pro bono or “low bono” basis.

Overall, with the assistance of committed volunteers, partnerships with faith-based groups, and individuals across the state and nation, EICBP was able to raise over $100,000 for the Free Them All campaign. Ultimately, EICBP paid 13 bonds, and to date, 24 of the 32 men detained have been released on bond and have returned home. This community response and overwhelming support for EICBP’s work was proof in action that there are many people who believe that raids have long-term detrimental impacts not only to the individuals involved but to the community as a whole. Supporting the release of individuals from detention allows families to be reunited, minimizes trauma to children and families, allows families to sort out their cases and gather evidence to support any claims for relief, and slows the immigration proceedings down. Moving forward with the lessons learned from this raid, we will continue to resist the sweeping abuse of executive power by ICE, CBP [Customs and Border Protection], DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and DOJ [Department of Justice].

What is the role of advocacy organizations in combating deportation? In combating immigration raids?

The immigration enforcement system is huge and sprawling, and there are many possible roles advocacy organizations can take to resist it. Our organization focuses on the post-arrest stage of enforcement, with the goal of disrupting the coercion that detention imposes on people in deportation proceedings. However, resistance at all stages of the enforcement system is necessary and important.

Although our primary mission is to pay bond for detained immigrants, community education about immigration courts and the detention system is essential for gaining support from stakeholders and donors. We will continue building a movement geared toward dismantling and revealing the use of vast discretionary power within the DOJ, DHS, ICE and CBP. For us, the central argument is the fundamental illegitimacy of a system that relies on terrorizing immigrants, violently separating families, and destroying community networks to enforce unjust immigration laws.

Many people who do not work with or are not themselves part of immigrant communities are not familiar with immigration raids. If you could tell them one thing about raids, what would you say?

People who are not at risk from immigration raids should try to really understand what it’s like to fear a raid. Every day people in this country live with the possibility of being arrested and detained, being separated indefinitely from their families, losing their work and livelihood, and being forcibly removed from the place they have made their home. If more people understood what that’s like, they would be able to approach conversations about immigration enforcement with greater empathy.

It’s frequently stated that advocacy movements are siloed. Do you see links between the work you do and that of other movements? Which?

Our work is probably most closely connected to the movement to abolish money bail and pretrial detention, as well as immigration advocacy more broadly. We seek to work in solidarity with any and all movements resisting the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.