By WU Causa
“I’ve been to prisons before but it’s nothing like this,” an activist at the People’s Tribunal said.
On Feb. 4, 2018, WU Causa— the pro-immigrant rights club on campus that works with local organizations to fight for immigration reform— and the Asian Coalition for Equality (ACE), drove to Tacoma, Washington to attend the People’s Tribunal organized by the Northwest Detention Center Resistance (NWDCR).
“If it hadn’t been for the massive barbed wire fences I wouldn’t have even known we were there. It looked like an ordinary office building … I was then overwhelmed with the sheer realization that we were in front of the most prolific detention center in the Northwest, which is filled with people’s parents and loved ones trapped inside. All without a trial date,” says sophomore Michelle Hicks, the president of ACE.
1,600 detainees are held in Northwest Detention Center, making it the largest one in the West Coast and the fourth largest in the U.S. Some of the detainees are minors, asylum seekers fleeing from border violence, veterans who served in the military, green card holders and victims of human trafficking. The for-profit company GEO group owns the NWDC, which provides nearly $57 million in revenue.
The site of the detention center is rampant with human rights violations. It is a place where setter colonialist policies like militant imperialism, divide and rule and environmental racism have reigned free. It is cold, bleak and isolated. The EPA has declared that it is on a toxic hazardous site that is uninhabitable. There is no residential area nearby; therefore, it is meant to be out of site and out of mind for Tacoma’s residents. There is no way to visibly notice the detainees due to the barbed wires, fences, security and walls. The structure of this facility is not only meant to keep families apart, but also to prevent the general public from knowing about the inhumane practices occurring their own backyard.
Detention centers do not function as ordinary prisons. They are facilities that detain immigrants from various different countries as they wait endlessly for their court hearing. For-profit corporations run these detention centers on behalf of the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal government agency. ICE arrests immigrants and sends them to these detention centers for them to wait for their hearings. Oftentimes, GEO group ensures that the detainees wait for years until they get a hearing.
These policies date back to the Obama era. In fact, deportations saw a rapid increase during the Obama administration. Since Trump’s election, immigration arrests have only continued to increase. ICE has even asked for $2.7 billion budget to expand detention capacity by 25 percent. Taxpayer dollars go into the pockets of for-profit contractors since ICE relies on them to maintain and run the detention centers. During the Obama and Trump administration, Congress has mandated that these detention centers need to be filled.
When ICE arrests immigrants, they are not subject to the same protections as being arrested by the police. ICE can lie to immigrants since they have no right to a lawyer or a language interpreter. They have no right to a phone call to notify families, so families may never know if their relatives have been detained.
The NWDC is one of the worst immigration detention centers in the USA. Detainees maintain the detention center by doing the cooking, cleaning, and laundry for $1 per day, far below minimum wage. Detainees report that they are served inedible food that is undercooked or rotten. The detainees are compelled to buy food from the commissary even though it is unaffordable. Flour tortillas cost $2, or two days of working. Hygiene products must also be bought from the commissary, even though products like shampoo costs $8, or eight full days of working. Families are not allowed to bring any food or hygiene products for their loved ones. Even phone calls to families are often too costly for detainees. Families frequently try to visit only to be harassed by the guards. According to immigrant rights activists, scheduled visits can be denied arbitrarily.
At the People’s Tribunal, a family had been waiting to see their relative at the NWDC, yet they were being repeatedly denied entry. They joined the Tribunal once they were turned away and told WU Causa members their story.
“The family [we met] showed me another way of how inhumane the detention center is and how bureaucratic the process is…they couldn’t see their family just because they narrowly missed their appointment time…I can’t think of a lot of people who would be so nice and upbeat [to us] if they couldn’t visit their family,” said Ryan Ichinaga, a member of WU Causa and ACE.
GEO group enforces a divide and rule policy in order to prevent any notions of solidarity amongst the detainees. They put various housing groups, or pods, in competition with one another. The pod with the cleanest cell would be given two pieces of chicken once a week.
The detainees are confined indoors for 23 hours per day, and are allowed only one hour of recreational time in a small yard at obscure times that they are likely to miss.
They are hindered from going to court hearings because the Detention Center ensures that they legal the paperwork is difficult for detainees. Detainees who have limited understanding of their rights and the court processes, due to language barriers or other factors, are not allowed to seek proper legal counsel. Even if they are able to fill out the paperwork, GEO group may ensure that detainees miss their court hearing by delaying transportation means. Detainees could wait for years before they get a court date or attend a hearing for their case.
Testimonies from the detainees and reports from the NWDCR claim that they are also denied access to prescribed medications, treatments, or mental health care.
Reports from the Northwest Detention Center Resistance indicate that some detainees are put in solitary confinement indefinitely when they protest conditions. Families may not know about transfers since GEO group is not legally obliged to notify them.
Activists argue that these human rights violations are purposefully coordinated and systematic. They argue that GEO group and ICE maintain such living conditions in order to psychologically debilitate detainees into giving up on their cases so that they continue to work in the center.
Description of Resistance
On March 7, 2014, 1,200 detainees went on a hunger strike. They took turns if they couldn’t maintain the strike for the whole time, but many were able to. A week later, the detainees in the Joe Corley Detention Center in Texas also went on strike in solidarity with the NWDC detainees to demonstrate that the human rights abuses of GEO group are happening all over the nation. The strikers demanded nutritious food, lower prices in the commissary store and higher wages for their work. They also called for an end to immigration detention and asked to be released until their cases were heard.
According to the Hunger Strikes Handbook, a scholar-activist project that documented the protest organized by Professor Megan Ybarra and NWDCR, the strikes caught the attention of activists throughout the USA and the world. Reporters from Mexico, England and Japan shared news about the hunger strikes and immigration detention in the US. Activists also showed solidarity with the detainees by reading letters written by detainees or having live phone calls with organizers on the inside. Soon after, activists in over eighty cities nationwide called for an end to all deportations. The Obama administration, unfortunately, was not responsive to these demands.
Many of the detainees on strike were placed in solitary confinement or had family visits shortened or banned. Some were even coerced into signing deportation forms, while asylum seekers were threatened with a denial of cases. They threatened to place a tube down their throats and force-feed them. GEO group also transferred many leaders of the hunger strikes to a detention center in Dalles, Oregon.
The hunger strikes ended on May 1, lasting for 56 days. While some strikers were reunited with families and GEO group stopped force-feeding, others were deported or transferred. Hunger strikes have been occurring periodically since 2014. On Feb. 7, 2018, 120 detainees began hunger strikes once again.
As the hunger strikes and other means of protest continue on the inside, the NWDCR tries to spread awareness of their plight, including through the annual People’s Tribunal.
The People’s Tribunal is starkly different from other rallies or protests. According to the NWDCR’s statement, “People’s Tribunals have a long history of being used anytime legal or political systems do not provide adequate remedy for harm in cases of abuse or injustice.”
The nature of the People’s Tribunal was one that refused to work within the confines of an oppressive system; rather, they work towards radically changing the status quo. Many members of ACE and WU Causa noted that the activists insisted that “if you are not here to change things, then please leave. If you are here for yourself, then please leave.”
The People’s Tribunal is a part of the #ICEonTrial campaign with Detention Watch Network and the NWDCR. They conducted a public trial against ICE and GEO group’s retaliation against activists and detainees. The symbolic purpose of this is to ground ideas about justice on their terms. “Instead of putting immigrants on trial, the People’s Tribunal turns the spotlight on ICE and GEO,” said Professor Jonneke Koomen. The NWDCR chose four activists who work on behalf of organizations that advocate for climate justice, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism. Each of the activists has visited the center and listened to testimonies of detainees. Under the theme of labor rights, the judges read the testimonies of the detainees and reflected on the overall implications of the detention center on immigrant lives.
The Tribunal found ICE, CBP, and all immigrant detention centers guilty of extensive human rights violations, including organized slavery, abuse and trauma towards generations of immigrant communities, and environmental racism on land that rightfully belongs to indigenous communities, specifically the Payullup nation. The Tribunal called for all immigration detention centers to be shut down, along with clear and transparent records of the abuses that happen in the detention center. The verdict called for the release of all detained people and reparations in the form of medical care and compensation for lost wages. On a larger scale, they demanded ICE and other militarized entities that terrorize people of color to be dismantled. They asked for an end to the persecution of immigrants and their families. Finally, they asked for the land to be returned to indigenous peoples.
The activists and protesters at the Tribunal came from a variety of organizations and backgrounds. People from the Detention Watch Network, the Red Line Salish Sea, BAYAN USA Pacific Northwest, NAACP, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) and Got Green. Some were families of the detainees who wanted to show solidarity. Some were from an organization of Filipino immigrants that advocates for LGBTQ, immigrant and workers rights. Some organizations fight for climate justice, while others fight for indigenous rights in solidarity with the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock. Some activists were from a church that gives warm clothes, food and a ride home to released detainees.
The NWDCR and its allies are resolved and uncompromising in their fight for the dignity and respect of all human beings. According to their website, they “reject the paradigm that classifies immigrants as either ‘hardworking’ or ‘criminal,’ ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy.’ Words like these seek to further divide our communities between people whose lives are considered disposable and people whose lives are judged worthy of protecting.” They view the struggle for immigrant rights as interlinked to environmental, indigenous, LGBTQ, women, and workers rights.
Where to go from here?
Currently, there are legal means by which others are trying to take down GEO group and ICE. Bob Ferguson, the Attorney General of Washington, announced a lawsuit about a year ago over minimum wage laws. Even though correctional facilities fall under the 13th amendment loophole and minimum wage laws, he claims the NWDC a private facility, not a correctional facility, since it is a place where detainees are waiting for their court hearings.
On Feb. 23, 2018, the ACLU of Washington filed a suit to uphold the free speech rights of hunger striker Jesus Chavez Flores, who was put in indefinite solitary confinement and suffered physical abuse at the hands of detention center guards due to his protest.
Evidently, the legal battle towards bet-ter treatment of detainees is difficult. However, the ultimate goal of the NWDCR is to shut down all detention centers.
Message to WU
Our experience with the Northwest Detention Center Resistance has highlighted to us a groundbreaking way of doing activism at Willamette. While people often have good intentions, they may occasionally treat immigrants as a hobby or a field of interest. The NWDCR has shown a form of activism that treats immigrants as individuals with the agency to lead movements. Therefore, we should work towards creating a culture of activism that respects immigrants’ right to lead their movements. A s a judge at the People’s Tribunal said, “Our livelihood keeps them detained… Their blood is on our hands. Their families’ blood is on our hands.” Since daily life involves engagement with an oppressive system that seeks to dehumanize immigrant communities, we all have an obligation towards immigrant lives. WU Causa urges people to regard immigrants first and foremost as people we have a duty to, not as pastimes.
WU Causa encourages activism that moves beyond attending rallies and protests. We advocate for an activism that also includes a self-reflection of how one’s daily life affects various communities. This is a type of activism that goes beyond performative actions or scholarly discourse.
Furthermore, we condemn any activism that sees fighting for immigrant rights is as a form of a gift or a charity case from a savior. We condemn the use of activism as a resume builder or a way to appease white guilt. The consequence of such an attitude is the further suppression of immigrant voices and disrespect to revolutionary movements. The hunger strikes and the NWDCR demonstrate that immigrant rights progress only when immigrants take the center stage of the movement. Therefore, we urge people to engage in activism that promotes humility and respect to the lives that are impacted.
WU Causa seeks to follow the intersectional and global mission of the NWDCR. We regard immigrant rights movements as interconnected with in-digenous rights, LGBTQ rights, and workers rights. Furthermore, we believe in activism that humanizes people by trusting them to lead their own movements. As a leader of the Northwest Detention Center Resistance said, “Our strategy is simple. Just follow the leadership of those inside. They are the experts… They know better than anybody how to shut down that place. It’s…up to us how to support their leadership.” As a campus, we need to do this better.
WU Causa would like to thank Professor Jonneke Koomen for informing us about the People’s Tribunal and the Asian Coalition for Equality for supporting immigrant rights. We would also like to thank Professor Megan Ybarra, Associate Professor at the University of Washington (and formerly of WU), and the Hunger Strikes Handbook for providing information on the NWDC. Finally, we thank the NWDCR for a humbling experience.