Released 05 June 2014  By Max Blumenthal
(....Continue from Part One)
Cházaro pointed to National Council of La Raza president Janet Murguía’s labeling of Obama as “the deporter-in-chief” as further evidence of the impact of bottom-up organizing.
“The fact we’re seeing people taking these risks even though they’re going to be deported—this is not something that ICE can put back in the bag,” Cházaro explained. “It’s a transformative moment where the Obama administration can no longer pretend it’s the fault of Congress for blocking immigration reform. This is a great period of unmasking.”
“This Is the Only Power We Have”
With most immigrants held in the Northwest Detention Center unable to afford legal representation, they have turned to a coalition of legal activists like Cházaro to keep the pressure on ICE. Detainees’ families and former cellmates have assumed a frontline role in the activism, mounting boisterous demonstrations outside the jail that often transform into acts of full-scale civil disobedience.
In a windswept parking lot next to a busy highway in Tukwila, Washington, I met a few of those who are leading efforts to support the hunger strikers. They had just wrapped up a demonstration outside the nearby Department of Homeland Security’s Seattle Field Office, the home of ICE’s bureaucratic parent. Among them was Maru Mora Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant and a leading member of the ad hoc #Not1More deportation coalition that coordinated the frequent demonstrations.
On February 24, Mora Villalpando chained herself to other activists, blocking the road leading to the prison and obstructing the path of buses filled with shackled migrants. By her side was the wife of a detainee who was being held at the detention center. The woman threw her body in front of the bus while protesters advanced, forcing the vehicle to retreat back into the prison. It was a powerful symbolic victory that galvanized the protesters, both inside the jail and out.
Just over a week later, the hunger strikes began. “We began getting calls inside the prison telling us, ‘This is the only power we have to make ICE negotiate with us,’ ” Mora Villalpando recalled. “We noticed that ICE and GEO [Group] thought the whole thing would end right away, but it had only begun.”
By March 21, the number of hunger strikers exceeded 750. As the national media focused in on Tacoma, Mora Villalpando and two local immigration lawyers attempted to initiate negotiations with ICE. Their demands were drawn up by the hunger strikers: an end to the indefinite waits for hearings, the solitary confinement regime, the medical deprivation and the callous and arbitrary separation of families. Instead of negotiations, they were met with an iron-fisted crackdown.
During the height of the hunger strikes in March, prison guards burst into a wing of Northwest Detention Center where a despondent young detainee had just attempted suicide. The guards asked if any detainees wanted to discuss jail conditions with an assistant warden. When twenty men raised their hands, Mora Villalpando recalled, the guards immediately cuffed them and dragged them into solitary confinement, where they would spend twenty-three hours in near-total isolation.
Mora Villalpando and her allies immediately contacted the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, who slapped ICE with a lawsuit demanding a restraining order against the intimidation tactics. Within days, the detainees were let out of solitary, but the recriminations continued. Commenting on background, an ICE official told me the agency could not discuss the use of solitary confinement and other punitive practices in its prisons due to “pending litigation.”
When five female detainees joined the hunger strike in late March, according to Mora Villalpando, they were locked in solitary for a week and barred from meeting with their lawyers. One of three original strikers, Jesus Cipriano Ríos Alegría, was placed in medical isolation, a practice applied to any detainee who refuses as many as nine meals. The longest-enduring hunger striker, Jesus Gaspar Navarro, lasted twenty-five days without food. As soon as he terminated his protest, he was locked in solitary confinement. Then the feeding tubes came out.
Jose Moreno, a 25-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico who helped coordinate hunger strikes when he was detained at Northwest Detention Center, told me that guards attempted to intimidate hunger strikers into accepting food. They presented the detainees with stiff rubber feeding tubes, Moreno said, describing in explicit detail the process of jamming the long hoses through the esophagus and toward the gastro-intestinal organs. The numbers of strikers began to drop as detainees recoiled at the prospect of being subjected to such a violent practice.
Yet the strikes continued, prompting further recriminations. According to Cházaro, GEO Group guards have barred hunger strikers from congregating in groups larger than two or three, and have transferred two leaders of the protests to other facilities. Detainees who have complained about doing janitorial work for only a dollar a day are now being given a single candy bar or a bag of chips for volunteer work, she told me. “It’s becoming clearer that the demands [the hunger strikers] made are only scratching the surface of the abuses,” said Cházaro.
Despite attempts to sever lines of communication between detainees, they managed to coordinate the strikes through carefully timed calls to a local Spanish-language radio station, El Rey 1360 AM, using the airwaves to broadcast their situation to allies on the outside and offer directives to those fellow prisoners able to tune in. With each passing week, the strikes grew more sophisticated, with a new wing of the detention center joining the protest in staggered fashion as another group of detainees broke its fast.
As the pressure mounted, ICE refused to budge. Instead of agreeing to negotiate with the strikers’ legal advocates, the agency relied on community roundtables initiated by activists. There, ICE representatives were able to project a sense of receptivity to grievances without assuming any obligation to act.
At one such event on March 21, Mora Villalpando said ICE officials refused to allow the wife of a detainee to bring her daughter into the meeting, claiming the child would present “an unnecessary emotional distraction.” Claiming to be unaware of the detainees’ complaints, ICE representatives boasted throughout the meeting that the Northwest Detention Center was one of its premier facilities.
GEO Group vice president of corporate relations Pablo Paez echoed the ICE officials in an e-mailed response to my interview request. “During their most recent [American Correctional Association] accreditation audits,” Paez wrote, “the Northwest Detention Center and the Joe Corley Detention Facility received scores of 99.2% and 97.9% respectively.”
That month, Representative Smith visited the detention center to test ICE’s public relations against the reality he witnessed. According to Mora Villalpando, ICE officials attempted to lead Smith on a propaganda tour that was closed to the press, initially rebuking his demands for meetings with the detainees. Once Smith was able to speak with some of the prisoners, he reeled at the “shocking” and “very, very tough” conditions he said they described to him. Calling prison food rations “wildly inconsistent and sometimes inedible,” Smith told the Seattle-based alt weekly The Stranger, “It is really problematic having a private company running this. So I can imagine that the less they pay for food, the more money they make.”
What Smith witnessed at the prison moved him to introduce his Accountability in Immigration Detention Act. The bill would impose a rigorous regime of oversight on privately maintained ICE prisons and immediately shutter those that fail two consecutive inspections.
In an e-mailed response to questions about allegations of abuses at Northwest Detention Center, ICE public affairs officer Andrew Munoz insisted to me, “We take very seriously the health, safety and welfare of our employees, detention facility staff and the individuals in our care. To that end, ICE has been responsive to Northwest Detention Center detainee suggestions, including reducing commissary prices, increasing the variety of items on the commissary list and implementing menu changes.”
However, according to legal advocates for the detainees, ICE officials offered them only a single concession.
“After telling us that everything was fine, that there’s nothing they can do,” Mora Villalpando told me, “[ICE] offered to serve the prisoners chicken on the bone on Mondays. We had to remind them that this is not about chicken, it’s about treating people like human beings.”
Moreno, the ex-detainee, interjected, “They literally tried to throw us a bone!”
While the hunger strikers persevered throughout April against an intensifying regime of punishment and intimidation, GEO Group marshaled all the resources at its disposal to protect a growing enterprise.
A Captive Market
The abuses unfolding behind the razor wire–topped fences and pre-cast concrete walls of Northwest Detention Center are the inevitable byproduct of decades of anti-immigrant lawmaking, lobbying and corporate profiteering.
(Continue Part Three....)