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Child at #Not1More rally in Tacoma, April 5 (Marilyn Mayers)

At detention center, immigrants kept indoors for years

Unitarian Universalists continue vigils outside Washington facility where detained immigrants are held.
By Elaine McArdle

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Standing amid the noticeable stench from a nearby toxic waste site, scores of Unitarian Universalists joined hundreds of others outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., on Saturday, April 5, to protest U.S. immigration policy. They rallied as part of a national day of action to stop the record number of deportations by the Obama administration.

With protests that day in more than 80 cities and in front of the White House, the rally at the for-profit Tacoma facility held special significance as a show of support for detainees who had been placed in solitary confinement for going on a hunger strike March 7. Just a day before the protest, 20 men—including one who had not eaten for 25 days—were released from solitary confinement by order of a federal judge following an emergency petition by the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services. But at least three remained in solitary confinement on the day of the protest, including a U.S. Army veteran who supporters say is being punished for organizing a work stoppage—even though work at the center, which pays $1 a day, is ostensibly voluntary.

“We’re focusing on ending the retaliation,” said Sandy Restrepo, a Tacoma attorney and a key organizer of the protests. She told the crowd that the men in solitary confinement aren’t allowed to have books, newspapers, telephone access, or radios, in order to isolate them from outside supporters.

Since 2012, when the federal Secure Communities deportation program was activated in the state, more than 2,600 Washington residents have been deported, splitting up families and leaving many children without financial support. Detainees launched the hunger strike in Tacoma in response to a February 24 action by local immigrant rights activists, including a number of UUs, who locked themselves together to block buses and vans leaving the detention center that day. The strike attracted national media and was featured in over a dozen newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts, including The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC—and it inspired detainees at another center, in Texas, to stop eating to oppose detention policies, too.

Jolinda Stephens, coordinator of Washington State UU Voices for Justice, the state legislative action ministry, was one of a core group that organized the February 24 action that blocked the detention center’s vans and led to the hunger strike. And UUs from a number of congregations in Washington have been protesting the Northwest Detention Center since it was built in 2004 next to a Superfund site known as the Tacoma Tar Pits, which contains benzene and other toxic chemicals. Owned and operated by a for-profit corporation, the GEO Group, under contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it holds 1,575 men and women and is one of the largest detention centers in the U.S.

The Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship in Vashon, the Tahoma UU Congregation in Tacoma, and the Northlake UU Church in Kirkland, along with other faith partners, have organized vigils each Saturday outside the center to support families, including young children, and others who are visiting detainees. Usually attired in their Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts, UUs offer refreshments, support, and information about the immigration process and detainees’ legal rights.

Washington congregations, including University Unitarian Church in Seattle, are also involved in a visitation program, especially for detainees with no family nearby, launched by Barbara Peterman and Pat Gunn of the Northwest UU Justice Network along with Gay Schy of the Vashon Island fellowship.

“They are breaking up families for no apparent reason,” said Charles Torrey, who is married to Schy and is also a member of the Vashon Island fellowship; the couple has been committed to the vigils for several years. “It’s a totally dysfunctional system that dramatically hurts real people. These are people low on the totem pole in our society, so it’s really easy to ignore it, but these are the values we stand for.”

Under U.S. law, deportation proceedings are civil rather than criminal matters. Yet the detention center has many of the trappings of a jail, according to Torrey and other UUs who have visited inside, including a liberal use of solitary confinement. It has no outdoor facilities. With significant delays in the deportation process, some detainees have been in the center for over two years without direct access to sunlight. And as there is no right to a free lawyer for an immigration proceeding, most go to court with no legal assistance.

Meanwhile, GEO makes at least $43 million a year from the Tacoma center, according to its 2009 contract with the federal government. That figure is almost certainly millions more today, since GEO is paid for each prisoner, and there are one-third more men and women inside. Stephens observed that it would be significantly cheaper to taxpayers to track immigrants with ankle monitors pending their deportation hearings than to imprison them.

Immigrant rights activists have made some progress in Washington. The King County Council passed an ordinance in December that will reduce the number of immigrants being funneled to detention centers after being arrested by local law enforcement. Now, only those with serious criminal records will be turned over to ICE custody in King County, the state’s most populated county. UUs worked in a coalition of religious and secular organizations for passage of the bipartisan ordinance.

And they joined a demonstration April 10 in front of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, one of the largest private foundations in the world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Asset Trust, which manages the endowment assets for the foundation, invests in the GEO Group.

Unitarian Universalists also joined protests in many other parts of the country on April 5 as part of the #Not1More Deportation Campaign’s “#2Million2Many National Day of Action.” UUs joined local protests in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania; at a march that ended in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.; and at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. There were rallies at a number of cities in California, and the Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of San Jose, Calif., was arrested with about a dozen others as they protested by sitting in the middle of a traffic intersection.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) organized the day of action to mark 2 million deportations of immigrants—more than 1,000 people a day—during the Obama administration, far more than under any other president. Although President Obama has said his deportation policy is focused on immigrants who are criminals, two-thirds had minor criminal violations such as traffic infractions or no criminal records at all, according to the New York Times.

Photograph (above): A child stands outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., where a for-profit prison company holds immigrants in detention for the U.S. government, during an April 5 protest by immigrant rights supporters, including many Unitarian Universalists (Marilyn Mayers). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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