“There I was,” recalls Maru Mora-Villalpando, “an undocumented immigrant being really angry about what was happening, and then I decided to call for other crazy people like me to shut down the detention center for a day and we did it!”
On a chilly February morning in 2014, Mora-Villalpando linked arms with 10 activists and joined with others to blockade the privately owned, 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Wash., one of the largest immigrant prisons in the U.S.
Out of that initial protest came La Resistencia, a grassroots group working to permanently shutter the center while supporting those inside. This spring, they celebrated their anniversary with a festive fundraiser where about a hundred supporters packed a Seattle community center. They laughed when Mora-Villalpando noted it was “the first time in five years that we’ve gathered this number of people and we’re not doing an action!”
Immigrant detention, and the fight against it, has ballooned under President Donald Trump. A daily record 55,220 immigrants now fill the federal government’s sprawling network of nearly 200 detention centers and jails, though in 2016 Congress mandated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintain just up to 34,000 beds. These facilities are plagued by inhumane conditions and largely run for profit with impunity.
More than half of the 760,000 people already apprehended at the southern border this fiscal year are refugees from Central America—parents with children fleeing violence, persecution and poverty in their home countries. In desperation, many asylum-seekers cross away from official ports of entry where long waitlists are now the norm. When apprehended crossing the border illegally, they’re detained and can be criminally charged with a misdemeanor or felony under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. They’re packed into overcrowded government-run facilities known as “ice boxes” or “dog kennels,” then shipped on buses and planes around the country to be held by ICE along with people arrested for civil immigration violations like overstaying their work or travel visa.
There, they await their fate—some will be allowed to pursue an asylum claim and will be released with a date to appear in court; others will be subjected to expedited removal and deported.
Family units with children are supposed to get released within 20 days per the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, although the Trump administration has updated regulations to prolong their detention indefinitely, potentially in unlicensed facilities whose conditions are determined and overseen by ICE—instead of by state agencies. This move has been challenged by 20 state attorneys general and civil liberties groups.
Most of the ICE detention centers are owned by two private prison corporations: GEO Group and CoreCivic. Private prisons hold 8.5 percent of the nation’s prison population and a whopping 71 percent of people in immigrant detention. “CoreCivic plays a valued but limited role in America’s immigration system,” Brandon Bissell, CoreCivic’s public affairs manager, wrote in an email to Ms. “Privately operated facilities are better equipped to handle changes in the flow of illegal immigration because they can open or close new facilities as needed.” GEO did not respond to requests for comment.
“The ultimate problem here is that the government is choosing to detain people in this way,” notes Silky Shah, the longtime executive director of Detention Watch Network, a coalition of nearly 100 organizations, including La Resistencia, that work to abolish immigrant detention. “You have all these facilities that are subcontracted out, so their primary concern is the money that they’re making.” They’re not the only ones profiting from caging people. Phone services, commissary, transportation and medical care are also subcontracted.
Many ICE contracts include either a fixed rate, a set amount regardless of how many people they confine, or a per diem, which can range from $60 to
$120 per adult per day. Regardless of the rate, as for-profit contractors they are inclined to keep costs down, revenue high and shareholders happy. The federal government’s own inspections of four contract detention centers show many provide expired food and poor medical and mental health care, with conditions dire enough to drive some immigrants to suicide attempts.
“Ending privatization doesn’t end the fact that our communities are being targeted … banished from the country,” Mora-Villalpando says. “Privatization just made it worse.”
This article was excerpted from a feature in the Fall 2019 issue of Ms.