EDITORIAL: Cold as ICE: Don’t separate families

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— From “The New Colossus” by American poet Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty

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Demonstrators opposing deportations hold up signs while chanting in English and Spanish outside of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma in March 2013. (Photo: Thomas Sorenes/The News Tribune)

There’s nothing like a hunger strike to get your attention, such as the one staged by detainees at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma that began March 7.

Depending on who you believe, 1,200 prisoners (according to detainee advocates) or 750 of them (according to ICE) stopped eating, drawing national attention to their demands for the right to post bonds, an end to deportation for parents and citizens’ spouses, faster resolutions, better food, more pay for the work they do, cheaper food in the commissary, better treatment, and end to deportations altogether. If you ask for eight things, maybe you’ll get one of them — likely the smallest one.

The strike was inspired by family members and supporters who were protesting deportations outside the prison with signs reading “End human rights abuse” and “Don’t separate families.”

As of March 18, the number of strikers under medical observation had dwindled to two, and each of those had eaten occasionally, according to ICE public affairs officer Andrew Munoz.

“Several issues that have been brought to management’s attention are being addressed, including adding more items to the commissary list and exploring ways to reduce prices,” Munoz stated.

In another statement, ICE officials stated, “There have been no punitive actions taken against individuals who are participating in the protest,” meaning at this point, no forced feeding has occurred. If ICE’s medical staff thinks a hunger striker’s life or long-term health is at risk, it has to seek a court order before administering any involuntary feeding, according to the agency’s 2008 Performance Based National Detention Standards. If a court says it has no jurisdiction, or if a hospital refuses to force feed a prisoner, ICE “may consider other action if the hunger strike is still ongoing.” It doesn’t say what the “other action” would be. The ACLU has said it will provide legal representation to the detainees if ICE does pursue a court order to force feed.

The undocumented are good for business in so many ways. They provide cheap labor, they pay taxes for services they will never receive, and, when finally detained, they provide a profitable income for private prisons.

The Tacoma detention center is owned by the GEO Group, Inc., a billion-dollar corporation that calls itself “the world’s leading provider of correctional, detention, and community reentry services with 98 facilities, approximately 77,000 beds, and 18,000 employees around the globe.”

According to a March 12 Labor Notes interview with immigrants rights lawyer Maru Mora Villalpando of Latino Advocacy, GEO Group reportedly receives $120 to $160 per detainee per day. And according to several other news reports, detainees are fed either milk and potatoes, or milk and oatmeal, plus whatever they can purchase in the commissary, where items reportedly cost about $5 each, which apparently is equal to what a detainee earns working at the center in a week.

If true, it sounds like a pretty inexpensive and extremely bland meal to serve to a population comprising mostly Mexicans.

Stalling on immigration reform also translates into good money for GEO, which reportedly has friends in high places. According to a June 4, 2013 report by Lee Fang in The Nation, GEO Group promised “that it would not lobby in any way over the immigration reform debate.” A subsequent disclosure, reported Fang, showed that the Geo Group paid an “elite team of federal lobbyists” to influence comprehensive immigration reform legislation. This is not surprising. It’s just sad that this particular form of corporate greed is so dependent upon the suffering of those who weren’t lucky enough to be born in a land of plenty.

Immigration is such a complex, messy issue, with millions of undocumented people already here, most with tangled ties to both legal and illegal family members. Many have built American lives that may be meager, but are better and safer than in their home countries.

On the “Hunger Striker’s Demands” Facebook page, it states, “We believe that we deserve the opportunity to demonstrate that we want to be in this country legally and to contribute to this country.” Of course it makes sense that people born here get to be here, no questions asked, without having to demonstrate anything. That’s a birthright. But it won’t hurt to scoot over, just a little, inside our golden doors. ­(end)

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