ICE knows older Americans are targets for scams that have them smuggle drugs to other countries, but they’re failing to inform and protect them

ICE Agents
In this March 30, 2012 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents take a suspect into custody as part of a nationwide immigration sweep in Chula Vista, California.

  • ICE is aware elderly Americans are targets for scams that have them unknowingly transport drugs.
  • The organization is accused of not doing enough to protect citizens, The New York Times reported.
  • Americans have been imprisoned abroad after being caught transporting drugs.
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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is aware older Americans are targets for scams that fool them into smuggling drugs into other countries, but often fail to protect them, The New York Times reported.

ICE’s Operation Cocoon, a program created in 2013 to disrupt international drug trafficking rings, allows US officials to share information on potential drug smuggling with foreign agencies in an effort to prevent it.

ICE no longer calls the program Operation Cocoon, though it still exists under the name.

The program, however, has been criticized for not doing enough to keep Americans – especially older Americans -who unknowingly end up transporting these drugs out of foreign prisons.

According to 2016 written testimony from Alan Scott Brown, then-ICE Homeland Security Investigations acting assistant director for investigative programs, “the average age of the couriers was approximately 59, and the oldest of these couriers was 87.”

According to Brown’s testimony, “the oldest unwitting individual HSI encountered during one of our investigations was 97. However, HSI special agents identified him before he left the United States to participate in the endeavor and convinced him to abandon his travel plans because he was going to be another unwitting victim.”

Most scam victims were not that lucky.

It’s not clear how many elderly Americans have been tricked into being drug mules in scams but since 2013, 180 of 400 travelers stopped by law enforcement in foreign airports on suspicion of carrying drugs due to information shared by ICE were American citizens. About 70% of them were older than 60.

The Times reported that in some cases, US officials have allowed older Americans to caught by foreign investigators and then locked up, without ever contacting them to let them know they were tricked into smuggling drugs.

“If somebody from the US government showed up at my father’s house and spoke to my dad and said, ‘Hey, look, we have reason to believe you’re being scammed,’ there’s 100% no doubt he would have dropped it,” Vic Stemberger, whose father is imprisoned in Spain for unwittingly transporting cocaine after being scammed told the Times.

In 2016, ABC News also reported that a 74-year-old Florida man served an 18-month prison sentence in New Zealand after also being scammed into transporting meth.

“I lost a lot,” Ralph Soles said at the time. “When I came home, I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a home to go home to.”

John Eisert, the assistant director of investigative programs for Homeland Security Investigations, told The Times that older Americans aren’t ICE’s target, but that it can sometimes be difficult to make elderly travelers aware of possible scams.

Eisert said ICE agents have been instructed to warn potential victims before they step onto a plane and unwittingly commit a crime.

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ICE said to transfer women out of detention center that became infamous over allegations of forced sterilization

FILE – In this Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, file photo, Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, speaks at a news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. The Trump administration is deporting several women who have alleged they were abused or mistreated by a Georgia gynecologist at an immigration detention center, according to lawyers representing the women.

  • ICE has transferred out the last women at Irwin County Detention Center, according to a lawyer for former detainees.
  • The agency did not respond to multiple requests to confirm the development.
  • The privately run facility attracted international scrutiny last year over claims of forced sterilization.
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An immigration detention center in Georgia where dozens of people alleged they were subjected to unnecessary medical procedures without their consent is no longer detaining any women, according a lawyer for some former detainees.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including its field office in Atlanta, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Irwin County Detention Center outside Atlanta was the subject of a congressional investigation last year after a nurse at the privately-run facility, Dawn Wooten, alleged that women there were being sterilized without their consent.

A review of medical records, as well as interviews with immigrants detained there, found that women underwent an unusually large number of gynecological procedures, many alleging they were performed without informed consent. Last year, the Mexican government confirmed at least one of its citizens had been the victim of an unauthorized surgery while detained there.

“Do I still have ovaries?” one person asked after waking up from an operation, the Los Angeles Times reported. “Can I still have kids?”

ICE states it only has records of two women undergoing hysterectomies. But dozens of women are now taking part in a class-action lawsuit against Dr. Mahendra Amin, the gynecologist who performed the surgeries, alleging medical malpractice that in some cases is alleged to have been tantamount to sexual assault. Amin is not board certified and LaSalle Corrections, the for-profit company that runs the detention center, has severed its relationship with him.

“ICE knew about this as far back as 2018 and yet they did nothing,” Azadeh Shahshahani, Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South, the group that publicized the whistleblower complaint in September 2020, told Insider. “I think the explanation there is the dehumanization of the Black and brown immigrant women at this detention center.”

Some of those women have since been deported; the majority have been released; and about 80 to 100 men are still there, according to Shahshahani, who is co-counsel on the lawsuit.

Removing the women who were still being detained in Irwin County is an acknowledgement, Shahshahani said, that the critics were right. Still, where some of these women have gone is not seen as much of an upgrade.

The Stewart Detention Center, about 140 miles south of Atlanta, is run by CoreCivic, one of the largest for-profit prison companies. While the facility has over the years developed a reputation for medical neglect, Shahshahani believes it’s been picked – after not hosting women for more than a decade – because it lacks the infamy that now taints the Irwin County Detention Center.

Detention Watch Network, a group that advocates shuttering immigration detention centers altogether, is calling for the women to be released.

“The Irwin detention center is emblematic of how the immigration detention system as a whole is inherently abusive, unjust and fatally flawed beyond repair,” Setareh Ghandehari, the group’s advocacy director, said in a statement. “The Biden administration must shut down detention centers immediately and end detention contracts.”

As of 2019, ICE had contracts with 106 privately run detention facilities, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General. The vast majority of detained immigrants are being held in for-profit ventures.

During a speech Thursday, not far from the Irwin County Detention Center, activists interrupted President Joe Biden, demanding that he “abolish private detention.”

“Private detention centers should not exist,” Biden responded, “and we are working to close all of them.”

But that is not what is happening. A week after taking office, Biden signed an executive order requiring the Department of Justice to phase out its use of for-profit prisons – but the order does not not extend to ICE.

On Friday, the Miami Herald reported the Biden administration is conducting negotiations with GEO Group, a private prison company, about renewing a contract to run an ICE detention center in Florida.

“They say the right thing, which is welcome,” Shahshahani told Insider, “but they need to follow that up with action.”

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Biden wants to send migrants to the northern US border amid effort to wrangle those arriving at the southern border

us-mexico border migrant children
Central American asylum seekers arrive to a bus station after being released by U.S. Border Patrol agents on February 26, 2021 in Brownsville, Texas.

  • US Customs and Border Patrol wants to fly migrants to processing sites up north.
  • There’s been an influx of migrants arriving at the southern US border, with a lag in processing.
  • The Biden administration has already sent FEMA there to assist.
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President Joe Biden’s administration is looking to fly migrants arriving at the US southern border to processing facilities in northern and coastal states, as the US deals with an influx of people seeking shelter in the US, The Washington Post reported.

The Post spoke to two Department of Homeland Security officials and reviewed an email that showed US Customs and Border Protection requesting planes to transport migrants as 1,000 people including unaccompanied minors crossed the Rio Grande on Friday morning.

It’s not clear which states they want to send the migrants to, but The Post reported many northern states do not have the capacity to process that many people.

There are an additional 1,000 people who could not be processed since last night, The Post said.

Biden’s administration has already mobilized Federal Emergency Management Agency to help handle the influx at the border, which recent CBP data suggests is similar to the surge of migration in 2019 when hundreds of thousands of migrant families sought asylum.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration also transported migrants from the southern border to facilities that had space to hold them in other parts of the country, The Post reported.

Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the US is on pace to see more people at the US-Mexico border “than we have in the last 20 years.”

This comes as the Biden administration faces criticism for the continued severe overcrowding at migrant holding facilities, a relic of the Trump administration, that Biden promised to undo.

One New York Times report found over 1,360 migrant children were held for longer than the mandatory 72-hour limit permitted by US law.

Earlier this week, CBS News also reported there are over 4,000 minors being held, with thousands of them being held in jail-like facilities meant for adults for extended periods of time.

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Deportations are down nearly 60% since Trump’s final months in office

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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) special agent preparing to arrest alleged immigration violators at Fresh Mark in Salem, Ohio, June 19, 2018.

  • ICE arrests have dropped 60% since President Joe Biden took office, The Washington Post reported.
  • Deportations have fallen by nearly the same amount.
  • In February, ICE arrested around 2,500 people, down from an average of 6,500 per month last fall.
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Arrests of undocumented immigrants plunged by more than 60% in February compared to the average in the final weeks of the Trump administration, according to data reviewed by The Washington Post. Deportations have fallen by roughly amount, the paper reported.

President Joe Biden came into office promising to halt most deportations in his first 100 days. But that plan was put on hold when a US judge, appointed by his predecessor and responding to a lawsuit by Texas’ Republican attorney general, ruled that the moratorium violated federal law.

The Biden administration has, in lieu of a total pause, issued guidance to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that strictly limits the conditions under which someone may be removed from the country. Agents may no longer target someone as a criminal, eligible for expulsion, over a nonviolent drug offense, for example.

“They’ve abolished ICE without abolishing ICE,” one anonymous agency official complained to The Post last month.

The impact has been stark. On average, The Post reported, ICE arrested almost 6,800 people per month from October to December 2020.

In February, Biden’s first full month in office, that number fell to less than 2,500. The US also deported about 2,600 people, down from more than 5,600 the month before.

But those figures do not tell the full story: The current administration is unlikely to satisfy either immigration activists or hard-liners.

While the new administration has started accepting unaccompanied minors who cross the border – a record 3,200 were in Border Patrol custody as of this week – it continues to expel others in the name of public health, upholding a Trump-era rule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January, over 62,000 people were subject to such “Title 14” expulsions after crossing the border, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

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A 100-day moratorium on deportations starts on Friday, Biden administration announces

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Protesters against deportations interrupt Joe Biden during a town hall on November 21, 2019 in Greenwood, South Carolina.

  • The Biden administration will be imposing a 100-day moratorium on most deportations beginning January 22.
  • The pause is “to ensure we have a fair and effective enforcement system.”
  • The move was announced Wednesday night by US Department of Homeland Security.
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The Biden administration will temporarily halt most deportations “to ensure we have a fair and effective immigration enforcement system,” the Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday.

The pause will begin Friday and last 100 days.

President Joe Biden committed to the moratorium on removal proceedings last year while campaigning for the Democratic nomination. That marked a reversal for the candidate, who in 2019 clashed with an immigrant rights activist who had demanded just that.

In a statement, David Pekoske, acting secretary of the DHS, said the pause will allow the department “to review and reset enforcement polices.”

It will also “allow DHS to ensure that its resources are dedicated to responding the most pressing challenges that the United States faces, including immediate operational challenges at the southwest border in the midst of the most serious global public health crisis in a century,” he said.

The statement noted that the moratorium will only apply “for certain noncitizens.” The department did not immediately respond to a request for clarification. During the campaign, Biden committed to halting “any deportations of people already in the United States.”

The move is one of a slew of immigration-related announcements to come in the first hours of the Biden administration.

Earlier in the day, President Biden signed an executive order rescinding his predecessor’s de facto ban on Muslim travelers. He also introduced a comprehensive immigration reform package that would offer permanent residency to migrant farm workers and a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people, winning him early praise from activists and evangelical Christian leaders.

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