As a rolling hunger strike by detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., enters its fourth week, protesters claim that administrators have taken retaliatory measures in response to the efforts surrounding the strike.
Hassall Moses, a U.S. army veteran and detained immigrant, says that on March 26, he was pulled from the general population and put in segregation after calling for a work stoppage among the detainees.
“I printed out a letter asking my fellow detainees to come together as one people, united,” said Moses in a recorded statement to a visiting attorney that has been made available to the media. Afterward, he says, he was placed in solitary confinement.
But Moses was just the first person targeted. One day later, more than 20 men were also allegedly placed in isolation. Several of them told attorneys that officials had asked the detainees if anyone wanted to speak to higher-ups about conditions there. According to a statement from attorneys at the center, the group volunteered, believing they were headed into negotiations over the hunger strike. Instead, the men say they were handcuffed, surrounded by officers in riot gear and taken into solitary confinement.
Meanwhile, family members who went to visit the center this weekend reported that their relatives were brought to the visiting area in shackles and surrounded by four guards each.
Located about 40 miles south of Seattle, the Northwest Detention Center is run by GEO Group, one of the largest private providers of correctional services in the country. Though it contracts with a number of organizations, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is its most generous customer — the department’s business alone brings in upwards of $200 million a year for the company.
Meanwhile, protesters say, conditions inside the facility in Tacoma are miserable. The hunger strikers are calling for improved food quality, an end to excessive commissary prices, decreased phone rates and an end to deportation in general.
They’re also asking for increased pay for their work. Currently, detainees say that they provide the primary source of labor for the facility, including working in the kitchen or laundry rooms and performing janitorial services — and that they do so for $1.00 a day. (Inmates in state or federal correctional facilities are paid 25 cents an hour for work they do in prisons.)
Moses, who was born in Micronesia and has been detained for 21 months, hoped to highlight this injustice with the written call for work stoppage that he says landed him in solitary confinement. “Basically this facility is run by the detainees,” he says. “If everybody stopped working, we could negotiate the pay raise, because right now everybody is working for a dollar.”
“You could call it the ‘one dollar a day volunteer program.’ … No matter how many hours they work, they get one dollar,” adds Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigrant rights activist with the Latino Advocacy group in the Seattle area, in an interview with In These Times.
“GEO is making money out of their misery, and separating families, and saving money out of their ‘volunteer’ labor — [and it] is the perfect storm to make this such a huge profit machine,” she continues. GEO Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Villalpando points out the disconnect between strict immigration laws — frequently touted by politicians as the way to “protect” American jobs — and the paltry wages of detainees. As she recently told Al Jazeera, “It’s just ironic that the government is detaining people for working without a social security number; meanwhile, they allow this company to exploit their labor.”
The reportedly low pay has also caught the attention of labor leaders in the area. Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, and Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, have joined the allies who gather on a daily basis outside the Tacoma detention center to deplore the conditions inside. They also intend to gather their resources on behalf of the detainees.
“We’re looking to figure out ways to help the families and what we can do financially and legally,” Johnson tells In These Times. “This is outrageous that they are forced to work and get only dollar a day.”
“The irony is that [at] the Northwest Detention Center … within eyesight are these million-dollar condos, while hundreds of detainees live in conditions that none of us would tolerate if the public could actually see what these folks are going through,” he continues.
A few weeks into the strike, local lawmakers visited Northwest to meet with some of the protesters. Afterward, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, whose district includes the facility, spoke with DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. In a later statement, Smith said that he “expressed [his] concerns [to Jeh Johnson] about the rising number of immigrants being deported.”
He also said that he sent letters to President Obama and Johnson asking for “prosecutorial discretion at all levels of immigration enforcement proceedings so that factors such as ties to the community are not ignored.” In addition, he said he urged “increased deportation relief for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, Legal Permanent Residents, and DREAMers that continue to be deported while we wait for comprehensive immigration to come to the floor for a vote.”
“Increased levels of deportation have had a devastating impact on our community, and I hope action is taken to provide greater prosecutorial discretion,” he concluded.
News of the protest at Northwest has spread to immigrants at other facilities. At the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas — also run by GEO Group—more than 100 detainees launched a hunger strike on March 16. And the retaliation for those strikers has also allegedly been harsh. According to Cristina Parker, an organizer with Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, some detainees at Corley have been shackled and isolated.
Diyadera Treviño of the Texas Undocumented Youth Alliance tells Free Speech Radio News that other detainees from the Texas facility were actually deported to Mexico and Honduras as a consequence of participating in the action.
“ICE and GEO have themselves identified people as leaders,” she says. “We’ve received calls from people they have already deported … who have called us and said ‘I was amongst the men participating in the hunger strike and I was intimidated and forced to sign my deportation removal [order].’”
In order to ensure the detainees’ right to go on hunger strike was being respected, ACLU attorneys tried to enter Corley last week; however, according to activists, they were denied access to the facility.
ICE spokesperson Andrew Munoz said in a statement: “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference.”
The strikes were staged in response to conditions at the individual facilities, but rallies to support the detainees in both centers will be part of the #2Million2Many National Day of Action on April 5. Organized by the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) to mark two million deportations under the Obama administration, activists have planned hunger strikes, marches and sit-ins in more than 40 cities across the country.
In San Francisco, for instance, members of the grassroots organization Mujeres Unidas y Activas will partake in a 24-hour fast beginning April 3, with a larger mass action on April 4. In Chicago, participants will march to protest at the Detention Center in Broadview, Ill.; Los Angeles groups will gather outside City Hall.
Though the protesters’ demands for the administration vary somewhat from city to city, they include extending Deferred Action for Child Arrival (DACA) to all immigrants; issuing an executive order to halt all deportations; ending “Secure Communities” and other police/ICE collaboration programs; ending workplace enforcement programs such as “E-Verify” and I-9 audits; supporting the “Bring Them Home” Campaign; and granting humanitarian parole to deported parents who have been separated from their children.
“To date, the administration’s announced immigration ‘initiatives’ have fallen far short, and failed to ease the tragic separation of families that devastate communities on a daily basis. Enough is enough. As organizations that see the devastation of deportations in our community, we cannot be silent, nor participate in programs that merely make cosmetic changes,” read a statement released by the coalition group SF Bay for Immigrant Justice about the campaign.
For the last five years, activists point out, a federal policy has required ICE to keep a minimum number of detainees in custody. “The fact is that Obama is not giving us any relief,” says Villalpando. “Congress set up a quota for ICE to have 34,000 [immigrants] any given day in detention centers.”
Though the 2015 federal budget does not include this specific mandate, it does earmark more than a billion dollars for detention beds. And in the meantime, immigrants continue to be detained, deported and separated from their families at a record pace.
“We want President Obama to be a real reformer, not the deporter-in-chief,” said Marisa Franco, campaign organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, in a statement about the Day of Action. “He can give immigrants relief with the stroke of a pen.”