Thousands of immigrants in the state of Washington are demanding the attention of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by staging a large hunger strike at the Federal Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Along with better food and safer work conditions, their campaign is directly aimed at immigration reform and U.S. President Barack Obama.
The strikers want Obama to sign an executive order that would halt all deportations, as well as provide alternatives to detention while immigrants in question await trial. Tacoma’s facility is owned by GEO Group, the largest provider of detention and correctional services in the country, who lobbied against these reforms in Congress last year. At the core of the argument is the economic fate of 11 million workers currently immobilized by investigations into their legality.
ICE reports that the strikes are comprised of 550 detainees. However, there are conflicting statistics from the Latino Advocacy Organization, which claims there are actually 1,200 immigrants involved. This means the majority of the detention facility’s 1,300 total inmates are involved. Additionally, these numbers do not even take into account the hundreds of advocates who have been joining outside every afternoon to display their support.
The Tacoma campaign is not an isolated event, either. Similar protests and strikes have been emerging in various immigrant detention centers across Arizona, Illinois, California and Virginia. It is also linked to a popular advocacy project, called “Not One More Deportation,” started by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network as a way to host events against unlawful deportation across the country. April 5 is expected to be a similar day of action, with sit-ins and strikes in front of the White House.
Immigration reform has become an increasingly contentious dilemma under the Obama Administration, whose efforts have been repeatedly stalled by GOP Congressional members. Lenient new measures are frequently criticized by the Republican Party as unnecessary “amnesty” at the expense of America’s well-being.
In response, Obama notes that the children of undocumented immigrants “study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods, befriend our kids, pledge allegiance to our flag. It makes no sense to expel talented young people who are, for all intents and purposes, Americans.”
In 2012, Obama declared an end to the deportation of young undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children. The order protects anyone under 30 years of age who came to the United States before they were 16, citing the improbability of their posing a security or criminal threat and the benefits they have provided for the military and work force. The same year, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act was approved, providing similar protections for the children of undocumented immigrants.
Protection over the human rights of immigrant families is increasingly necessary, as recent years prove. In 2011, 396,906 individuals were deported, the largest number in ICE history. This is even more shocking, considering a 2009 study proved that four million immigrants are inaccurately defined “illegal,” having been born here despite their parents’ having entered the country without proper documentation. This means that the majority of “illegal” immigrants are thus wrongfully and systematically denied access to the rights that other American citizens enjoy.
The participants of the hunger strike in Tacoma complain of experiences with this first hand. They allege that GEO Group only compensates them $1 per day for the janitorial and kitchen services they fulfill. Effectually, they are then earning almost no money while they await their trial, causing a severe financial burden for themselves and their families. The status of immigrant detainees is practically that of slave labor.
“Its just ironic that the government is detaining people for working without a social security number; meanwhile, they allow this company to exploit their labor,” states Latino Advocacy founder Maru Moro Villalpando.
The strikes began March 7 and are projected to continue until they receive congressional acknowledgement. Friday was chosen as the start purposefully to honor those who have already been deported, as that is the day of the week prison guards round up all those who will be sent back the following Monday morning.
– Stefanie Doucette