By JEFF JOHNSON
(Mar. 26, 2014) — Can you imagine being separated from your family for months because a lapsed driver’s license led to an immigration status check? Can you imagine having seven minutes to make your case for staying in the country before being deported? Can you imagine be forced to work for a $1 a day and being forced into solitary confinement for speaking up against inhumane conditions? Can you imagine having to pick maggots out of your food or being served food you wouldn’t feed to your pet?
Well, these things happen every day at the Northwest Detention Center within view of million dollar condos on the Foss Waterway on the tide flats in Tacoma.
We have a moral crisis of epic proportions in our country. By April 5, 2014, two million immigrant workers will have been deported from the United States over the last five years — more than in the entire history of our country. On average, 177 immigrants are deported every working hour. Most of these immigrants would not have been deported if the U.S. Senate bill on comprehensive immigration reform had passed the House of Representatives and signed by the president. This week, Democrat Representatives are trying to get 218 signatures for a discharge petition to run the Senate bill on the floor of the House.
This past Sunday we took the newly elected Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, Tefere Gebre, to visit the Northwest Detention Center. Tefere, who has been leading labor’s efforts to end senseless deportations, had heard local organizer Maru Villalpando speak on the radio show Democracy Now! about the hunger strike by detainees at the Tacoma Detention Center. We were able to speak with Maru and some of the family members of detainees.
We learned that the hunger strikes began on March 7 when Jose Moreno was inspired by the wife of another detainee, who was about to be deported, when she stepped in front of a deportation van preventing it from moving forward. Jose, who was on that van, saw her courage and began organizing the hunger strike inside the center to protest the inhumane treatment of detainees. More than 1,000 detainees began the hunger strike and work stoppage. As of this past Sunday one hunger striker was on Day 17.
Speaking with family members of detainees we learned of the harsh treatment meted out by guards who work for the private for-profit prison company — the Geo Group — that runs the Detention Center. Detainees are allowed to see family members during visiting hours but are not allowed to touch family members. Detainees are forced to do the work of the Detention Center for a $1 a day, which enormously pads the profits of the Geo Group which is paid for with tax dollars.
According to company filings, Geo Group’s CEO earns more than $22 million a year in compensation. Google the Geo Group and you will find a list of complaints and lawsuits that charge the Geo Group with a culture of violence, sexual abuse, unnecessary use of force and isolation to control prisoners and detainees, untrained and underpaid guards, lack of basic medical and mental health needs, unsanitary conditions and food, and in one lawsuit “barbaric and horrific conditions.”
We learned about one detainee who had been held in isolation for months and was subjected to electronic buzzing every half hour, 24 hours a day. After 10 months the man was released and now suffers with a severe psychological disorder.
It is time to end the senseless and immoral deportations of workers who contribute to the productive wealth of our country and to protect workers who are simply trying to make a better life for their families. It is time to pass comprehensive immigration reform so that millions of workers and their families can come out from the shadows and be protected by the same rights as every other worker and citizen in the United States.
The selfless organizers on behalf of the detainees from Latino Advocacy and Casa Latina need your help in raising funds for phone calls for the detainees, support for the families of detainees, travel costs for families, litigation support etc.. Please give generously at http://www.gofundme.com/7orehg.
The Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO is participating in a rolling hunger strike and day of action at the Northwest detention on Monday, March 31. Please join us and make a contribution to help the detainees and their families. Click here for more information.
Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 500 local unions and 400,000 rank-and-file union members.