These sandy beaches should be the scene of a family’s lazy Sunday afternoon picnic. There should be parents lying under beach umbrellas while kids fall over themselves building sandcastles amid the sound of splashing water and laughter.
Instead, at the Otay Mesa international border between San Diego and Tijuana along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, a wire fence protrudes above the white sand out into the clear blue waters, disrupting the scenery. On March 14, fathers, mothers and children pressed their faces and hands against the fence’s grid, straining to reach out to daughters, wives, and husbands on the other side of the fence. There were some smiles, tears and glimmers of expectant hope.
A chorus of “Sin Papeles!” rang through the air from the San Diego side, and a resounding, “Sin Miedo!” reverberated through the thick fence that divides the land. The call and response continued for a few rounds. Over the next few weeks, the words “sin miedo,” meaning no fear, became more than a chant. The chanters are part of the “Bring Them Home” action, organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), where some 150 individuals who had been deported from the US, or had chosen to return to their country of origin, crossed the border in groups of thirty-forty, over the course of eight days. The action’s main purpose: to reunite families that have been torn apart by deportation, even if it means defying borders.
“I am afraid, but I don’t let fear stop me from fighting for what I believe in,” says Elizabeth Lara, a 21-year-old undocumented activist from Yakima, WA. Her father, Dolores Lara, was one of the participants in the Bring Them Home action. Since he was deported three years ago immediately following an arrest from a DUI, Lara had not been able to see his children. He wasn’t allowed to say goodbye. He was placed under an ICE Detainer, a policy which allows the local jail to hold undocumented immigrants for transfer to immigration detention, regardless of whether they have been convicted for a criminal offense. Within days of his arrest, he was sent to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the country, and subsequently deported to Mexico. Upon hearing about the Bring Them Home action, Elizabeth convinced her father to participate.
“He thought this was one of my crazy ideas when I first told him. But when he went to Tijuana for the training, and he met the other families who were also crossing, he knew it was real. It was very powerful,” says Lara. The trainings were organized by undocumented youth and activists. NIYA organizer Rosario Lopez says that the activists “don’t want the families to rely on us, or on attorneys and politicians. We want them to recognize their own power.” Lara was one of the thirty individuals who crossed on the first day. His 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, a US citizen, had also accompanied her father on his return journey. Her 11th birthday was approaching in a few days. “Being able to feel and touch my father was the biggest birthday present for my sister. She really wanted to spend her birthday with him,” says Elizabeth.
The reunion was short lived. Dolores was removed for the second time, again unable to say goodbye. At the border, he was told by ICE agents that if he refused to sign his voluntary departure papers, Jessica would be placed under foster care, and Elizabeth would lose her DACA status. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a 2012 executive order that provides status for undocumented youth who have grown up in the United States.
Elizabeth waited on the San Diego side of the fence, in a tunnel overlooking the freeway, holding signs and chanting as her sister and father crossed. “She was able to hold him and hug him for a day,” she says, holding back tears. However, Elizabeth did not see his return as a total defeat. She says that the organizers are able to use her father’s experience to tell other families crossing later in the week what to expect from ICE. “Even though I can’t be reunited with my family, I want other families to be able to.”
Hashtagged #reforma150, NIYA organizers see actions like Bring Them Home as immigration reform in practice. As Congress has endlessly delayed immigration legislation, activists at the Otay action held up signs saying “Immigration Reform Starts Here.” While the Gang of Eight’s reform bill would put millions of dollars behind John McCain’s declaration that the US-Mexico border should be “the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall, ” NIYA operates on a shoe-string budget, with a close knit circle of organizers who have developed trust through actions such as Bring Them Home. Prior to March 11, they had conducted two other major actions: Dream 9 and Dream 30. Nine undocumented individuals, followed by another thirty a few months later, crossed the border in Arizona and Texas, respectively. When the Dream 9 were held at Arizona’s notorious Eloy Detention Center in the summer of 2013, some of the participants mobilized a hunger strike protesting the terrible conditions that had led to a few apparent suicides there. In response, several were placed in solitary confinement. NIYA organizers also drew public attention to the cases of individual detainees. They were kicked out of detention by ICE when their organizing attempts gained traction.
These actions leave participants such as Lara feeling like part of a bigger movement against deportations. “I told my father to remember those families he met in Tijuana. Even though we are not blood related, they are our family. This movement is his family. It is mine too.”
* * *
The activists in San Diego shared more with activists in Tacoma than a common struggle against deportation; here, immigrant detainees also resisted immigration laws with a hunger strike, this one at the Northwest Detention Center. The hunger strike at NWDC was inspired in part by a direct action outside the facility on February 24, when a group of activists and supporters blocked deportation buses from leaving the facility.
The outside action was part of the Not One More campaign initiated by the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), which is calling on the White House to put a moratorium on deportations. They have initiated a round of organized civil disobediences blocking deportation buses in cities such as Chicago, Tacoma, San Francisco and Phoenix.
“I saw a woman stop the bus I was on who got arrested,” says Jose Moreno, a hunger striker in Tacoma who was recently released on a bond. He had been on a bus leaving the Northwest Detention Center to go to Tukwila USCIS for fingerprinting and biometrics. When he returned to the detention center, Moreno recalls telling his friends about the incident, saying “People who did not need to be protesting our conditions, are taking risks. We are the ones most affected. We need to do something.”
Word spread throughout the detention center and on March 7, a hunger strike involving more than 750 detainees took place. A work stoppage was also conducted by the detainees who are paid a paltry $1 a day to maintain the operations of the detention center. They were protesting their deportation and demanding easier access to affordable bonds that would prevent detainees from waiting in jail while their cases are being reviewed. They were also protesting their living conditions, demanding an improvement to the food quality, improved treatment and access to medical needs, increased wages and an end to exorbitant commissary prices.
The woman who blocked Moreno’s bus was Michelle Manrique, wife of Miguel Manrique. When Miguel was taken in to the NWDC in September 2013, their baby had just turned ten months. Michelle, a US citizen, had filed a I-130 application after their marriage for him to change his undocumented status. Instead, Miguel, who had no former arrest history, was arrested at their home after his interview with ICE for his previous attempts to cross the border and subsequently incarcerated.
On that fateful morning of February 24, Michelle had travelled a few hours from Vancouver, WA to arrive outside the detention center at 2 am. She waited in the car with her daughter. “This was the day they told my husband he was going to get deported,” she says. “I was going to stop that any way I could. I was going to block the bus that took him. I had no other option. The bus just kept coming at me. It didn’t stop until it touched me. They didn’t think I was going to stand there to block it. I was serious.” Michelle was then arrested.
In a twist of events, Miguel Manrique was not on that bus that morning. Instead, unknown to both of them, he was to be deported two days later on February 26. Michelle found out when she did not hear from him and desperately looked up the ICE detainee locator website. She realized then that he had already been deported to Mexico City. ICE had refused to let him call her prior to his departure. Also unknown to Michelle was that her courageous act of resistance had contributed to the emergence of a hunger strike that could potentially have the power to reunite many other families.
Since February, new leaders have arisen in the detention center, including Hassall Moses, who arrived in the US as a child from Micronesia and proceeded to serve in the US military as an adult. In a voice recording, Moses shares his plan for how detainees could try to reverse the conditions of the detention center by taking things into their own hands:
Basically, this facility is run by detainees. If we, everybody stopped working, we could negotiate the pay raise because right now everyone’s working for a dollar. We could talk about the quality of food, the living conditions and put into practice having detainees who come in with petty offenses be eligible to be released on their own personal recognizance or conditional parole or humanitarian parole to be with their families and be working so they can afford their own attorneys.
In retaliation, ICE has placed Moses in solitary confinement. Elsewhere in the detention center on Monday March 24, Moses’s fellow inmate allegedly attempted suicide by hanging himself. He was sent to the hospital for a medical emergency and survived.
“If you say that I am not a prisoner/but you have what I lack/Of your words/I have nothing to say,” writes Jesus Cipriano Ríos Alegría, a hunger striker in Tacoma currently held under medical isolation, in a poem about being incarcerated in the Northwest Detention Center. For many, a suicide attempt, over 750 hunger strikers, solitary confinement and medical isolation for the leaders, all within a span of three weeks, is sufficient evidence of the decrepit physical and psychological conditions these prisoners endure and the need for radical change.
* * *
Inspired by the direct action of the hunger strikers in Tacoma, immigrant detainees of the Joe Corley detention center in Conroe, Texas declared their own hunger strike on March 17. The strikers brought attention to the double judgment practice enforced by ICE. Under this practice, immigrants who had served time for previous offenses in the US could face deportation and be incarcerated once again by ICE. This applies not only to undocumented immigrants, but also to those with legal statuses, such as refugee or permanent residency status.
ICE and law enforcement uses double judgment to shuffle large numbers of immigrants into correctional and detention facilities across the country. Many of these centers, including the Northwest Detention Center, are operated by the Florida-based GEO Group and other for-profit companies. Immigrant rights groups and journalists have exposed GEO Group’s lobbying in support of Arizona state’s draconian immigration laws, as well as its support for the maintenance of the 34,000 bed quota in federal detention centers. This quota mandate has resulted in a boom for the private prison industry, which eagerly offers the bed spaces. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has delivered $5.1 billion dollars in funding to these private prison companies for immigration detention alone. In recent years, immigrant rights groups have brought attention to the investors of GEO Group, such as Wells Fargo bank, causing the latter to divest 75 percent of its shares due to public pressure. However, other investors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have continued to rake in the profits from GEO Group unscathed.
The common predicaments of immigrants incarcerated in Tacoma and Texas encourages solidarity among them. On day twelve of their hunger strike, Ramon Mendoza Pascual and Jesus Gaspar Navarro, two leaders who have been held in medical isolation and threatened with force feeding should they continue their resistance, recorded some words of encouragement to their counterparts in Texas. Their words were played at a press conference outside the detention center on a rainy Northwest morning. “Don’t be afraid, we must keep going, so that we are heard and so that we can be free,” says Pascual, “We are locked up, they can’t lock us up more.”
* * *
The Bring Them Home campaign, the NDLON civil disobedience actions and the Tacoma and Texas hunger strikes were not coordinated. Yet they took place within weeks of each other, each inspired by the other. The campaigns are growing by emboldening immigrants who have long been compelled to hide.
Two weeks after the Bring Them Home action in San Diego, organizers in Yakima, WA held the city’s first ever “Coming Out of the Shadows.” One of the organizers was Elizabeth Lara, whose father Dolores Lara had been deported on the first day of the action. Undocumented immigrants and their friends gathering in public to support each other in “coming out” as undocumented, sharing their past experiences of fear and shame related to their immigrant status and their processes of overcoming these emotions.
Eva Chavez, a 27-year-old undocumented woman, thanked Elizabeth for inspiring her and inviting her to the event. She had found out about the Bring Them Home actions and Coming Out of the Shadows event through Facebook two days before. She decided then that she was going to participate. Arriving in the US from Mexico nine years ago, Chavez started working in the fields. From there, she enrolled in part-time ESL classes and is currently a student at Central Washington University. In her speech, the college student and part time custodian described the invisibility and tediousness of farm work.
We are the people whose backs are bent for many hours a day while picking asparagus or onions. We face the ground most of the day. Our garments, hands and face gets dirty, but we do the job. We pick the fruit and vegetables in the orchards, so that many families can bring it to their tables to enjoy happy dinners. We are the ones under the shadows working not just in the fields, but in warehouses, in housekeeping and other jobs that require hard work.
The crowd was rapt. When she said, “Enough is enough! It is time for ‘coming out of the shadows,’” the audience erupted in deafening applause. Chavez’s speech was remarkable for having been delivered at a rally comprising people of all ages and jobs, each there because they are personally invested in the struggle for immigrant rights; whether because a loved one is in detention, or because of a personal resolve to be fearless under the threat of deportation and discrimination. They have been in the shadows, but they are not going back.
Update 4/24/2014: Since this article was first written, the hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center has continued into its 49th day. Hunger strikers have faced retaliation by ICE, through deportation or medical isolation. Ramon Mendoza Pascual and Jesus Cipriano Ríos Alegría, who are referenced in the article, remain in medical isolation under solitary confinement sentences. On April 14, eight busloads of detainees, including five hunger strikers, were deported from the detention center. Reform continues to come too late for the family members of the deportees. Updates can be found on www.notonemoredeportation.com or at #NotOneMore.
The Bring Them Home campaign continues to organize for the release of participants in the #reforma150 action. Sit-ins, rallies and vigils by family members have been organized to demand the release of participants in detention centers across the country. NIYA has also released internal documents by the Department of Homeland Security indicating that the deportation of many individuals who meet strong asylum criteria have coincided with the DHS’s new guidelines restricting asylum grantees. Updates can be found on the National Immigrant Youth Alliance Facebook page or at #BringThemHome.
* * *
Certainly I am not alone
Yet you have isolated those who are here
You say I am and I should feel free.
Perhaps the surrounding concrete protects you?
The grid above you provides you shade?
In your freedom do you not perceive the origin of your heat?
Do you not realize who reflects your color?
Are you blind to the origin of the light?
Do you ignore the moment of dawn and dusk?
If you wish, can you count stars?
Surely you are like me?
You say I am not a prisoner
You say I should not feel like a prisoner.
If the fortune of others is like mine
Accept the steel
Accept the concrete
For there is nothing just in enjoying privileges
Nothing just in asking for preferential treatment
Only that I heard the sun
Only that I heard the wind
Only that I heard myself in raindrops
And smelled their moisture and heard their music
It is only that this dream elicits in me a selfish desire
If you say that I am not a prisoner
but you have what I lack,
Of your words
I have nothing to say
Jesus Cipriano Ríos Alegría
Northwest Detention Center, Tacoma, WA
Many thanks to Rae Xuan for translating the poem from Spanish to English