by Christina López, Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 41, No. 2, April-May 2020

Images of asylum seekers torn from their children and forced into filthy, crowded detention centers sparked public outrage last year. The media widely exposed it for a time, and people righteously denounced the Trump regime for these appalling conditions. Less exposed is that Trump is expanding a thuggish, racist, sexist, xenophobic program that was planted by prior administrations.

In 1996, mandatory detention was directed by President Clinton with two new policies. The first was called the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and the second, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act. Before these new rules, the federal government detained immigrants only if perceived to be a “threat to public safety.” Today, immigrants are arrested for just existing and surviving in the United States without official authorization. Average days behind bars have leaped from two to over 30.

Big profits and foul conditions

     Clinton’s game-changing laws created a rapidly growing multi-billion-dollar private prison industry to which the government allocates billions of dollars. One of the nation’s largest private-prison corporations is the GEO Group which derives 20 percent of its profits from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). GEO Group currently has a $475 million contract with ICE to hold asylum seekers waiting for court hearings. Whenever those court hearings finally happen, 90 percent of the immigrant litigants will not have lawyers.

The GEO Group owns and operates the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Wash., just recently renamed by some officials the “Northwest ICE Processing Center.” NWDC has the capacity to hold up to 1,575 immigrants, one of the largest private immigration prisons in the U.S., and the state’s only private prison. It is located in an industrial area and the massive release of contaminants poses a human and environmental health risk. To maximize profits, GEO Group has cut back its employees and medical staff, creating worse conditions and substandard medical care for residents.

NWDC has a bad reputation for creating a toxic environment for its residents. During an outbreak of food poisoning detainees waited for days to get medical care. They have frequently protested about moldy food, being served frozen deli meat, and just plain starvation. To compensate, they ask family members for money to buy food from the commissary. Or they are forced to work for a measly $1 per day to cook, clean, and launder in the “volunteer work program.” At times they’re given snack food rather than the meager wages.

Immigrants go on the counterattack

     Detainees started organizing larger and larger hunger strikes in 2014 to publicize the ongoing crimes against them. Recognizing that a grassroots effort was critical, immigrant rights fighter Maru Mora Villalpando co-founded La Resistencia in 2015 to help with the hunger strikes, spotlight other atrocities, and publicize the fightback. Workers have a wage-theft lawsuit against GEO Group, which is still pending. A 2017 lawsuit revolves around sexual harassment and assault against detainees at NWDC, which has one of the highest numbers of such complaints in the nation. There is virtually no government investigation of such crimes at private detention centers.

NWDC has responded to protests by forcing inmates into solitary confinement for protesting and publicizing conditions inside the center. But this has not stopped the inmates; it’s built further support, inside and outside the jail.

La Resistencia has been campaigning to get the City of Tacoma to shut down NWDC, and continues to support immigrant-led hunger strikes. A cadre of volunteers manages the hotline set up to take in reports of the inhumane conditions. Complaints are then documented and used to raise awareness about the abuses and abhorrent environment inside. La Resistencia has also organized numerous popular protests outside the walls of NWDC, with community support that includes Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women.

Several groups have rallied in solidarity with La Resistencia. One is a human-rights group at the University of Washington in Seattle, where students recently organized a rally on campus and invited this reporter to speak. The students also collaborated with La Resistencia around a state legislative bill to shut down private prisons, such as NWDC.

Washington State’s Democratic-led legislature shamefully watered down this bill to the extent that its purpose — to ban private prisons — was completely removed! This was a setback for the NWDC shutdown campaign. But the battle is not over. Declares UW student and human rights activist Mahilet Mesfin, “We are all in this together, and we will continue to fight.”

Tsuru for Solidarity, a Japanese American-led group organizing to end detention centers also partners with La Resistencia. It mounted a protest on February 23 — the 78th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 126,000 Japanese Americans and immigrants. As Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka reported, “Under the banner Never Again is Now, Japanese American activists want to make sure the silence and complicity of friends and the larger society that our community faced in 1942 is not repeated today. They join other communities who have faced persecution, like Jewish activists who protested ICE last year in Seattle.”

Some basic truths

     No one has the right to tell people where they can live, especially when it’s a matter of survival. To cage migrants and their children and treat them inhumanely for profit is astronomically outrageous. As Maru Villalpando puts it, “If a Democrat gets elected, people are going to forget about this issue. It’s not just about getting rid of Trump. We need to get rid of the entire machine.”

With strong support and many community groups working together, it is possible to ban detention centers and abolish all ICE and Customs and Border Protection agencies. It is also possible to halt deportations of undocumented residents and demilitarize the border. And while we are at it, we can keep families united by establishing open borders and full amnesty.

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