– Detained in Washington: ‘They put me in shackles. Why? I am not a criminal’ (Guardian, April 10, 2014):
Almost 34,000 undocumented migrants are locked up in America’s vast network of detention facilities – and Tacoma is the crucible of a burgeoning protest campaign.
At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about the brown slab of building at the end of East J Street. A long concrete rectangle with a few small windows, it blends into an industrial district of warehouses outside Tacoma, a rainy port city in Washington state.
A high fence topped with razor wire betrays its true function. Reception gives another clue: lockers for visitors to store possessions. To go further you must pass through a body scanner.
Then a uniformed guard with a mess of keys on his belt leads you into a passageway, locks the door behind you, and leads on into a maze of narrow corridors painted bright white, locking each door on the way.
In theory, the building, officially known as the Northwest Detention Center, is not a jail. Operated by Geo Group, a private company, on behalf of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), it is run by managers, not wardens, and the 1,300 men locked up here are residents, not prisoners. But such distinctions tend to evaporate for those held inside as incarceration drags on from weeks to months and years.
“I am not free. They put me in shackles,” said Ramon Mendoza Pascual, 37, who’s been held at the centre since September 2013. “Why? l don’t feel like a criminal. I’m not a criminal.”
The detention centre in Tacoma is one of the biggest in a nationwide network of 250 facilities that, together, are holding 34,000 people marked for deportation. It is also the crucible of a burgeoning protest campaign. Mendoza, an undocumented migrant from Mexico, has led hundreds of his fellow detainees in a series of hunger strikes that have triggered a similar protest at a centre in Texas and drawn attention to one of the most controversial links in the deportation chain.
Critics are upset not only at the sheer number of people deported under the Obama administration – estimated to have recently hit 2m, a total that easily beats what was done in previous administrations – but at the way they are chosen, and the manner in which they are treated before being dispatched off to Latin America.
Mendoza, who was not so long ago a carpenter installing doors and windows in Seattle, has become one of the rallying points for a backlash that has rattled the White House.
Seated in a bare interview room last month, wearing a blue smock and plucking at a wristband stamped with his detention number and ordained destination – Mexico – Mendoza was sombre, soft-spoken and weakened from two weeks of fasting.
He entered the US illegally 20 years ago to seek a better life, he said, and found it in the Pacific northwest – doing construction, buying a mobile home, marrying and raising three children, aged five, 10 and 12, all of whom are US citizens.
Last September he had a few beers and was arrested for driving under the influence. The charge was dropped – Mendoza claimed the vehicle was parked and his wife was coming to pick him up. He had been convicted of DUI in 2007, however, and police handed him to Ice, which categorised him “an illegal alien with a criminal record” and incarcerated him in Tacoma.
In December an immigration judge with the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review deemed Mendoza a “danger to the community” and denied his petition for an immigration bond.
The carpenter shook his head. “They consider me a danger to society, but I spent all my days working honestly. Now I’m here. How can I provide for my family?”
President Obama, stung by the label of “deporter-in-chief”, has said deportations should focus on criminals and not break up families. But Mendoza’s case, his supporters told the Guardian, illustrated the political, bureaucratic and economic impetus that has led to the continued banishment of undocumented people snared for minor infractions.
A little-known congressional directive known as the “bed mandate” obliges Ice to keep 34,000 detainees per day in custody, a quota driven by conservative calls to secure the border.
But tighter border controls and a shaky economy have reduced illegal border crossings to their lowest level in decades, leaving Ice and US Customs and Border Protection, both part of the Department of Homeland Security, struggling to meet the quota. The solution: sweep up people like Mendoza.
Commercial imperative underpins the dynamic. Companies like Geo Group and the Corrections Corporation of America run the facilities, reaping billions of taxpayer dollars, some of which end up as campaign donations to members of Congress.
Mendoza and other detainees interviewed at Tacoma complained about the size and quality of the meals they are served, plus prices for food at the centre’s commissary. They also complained about being paid just $1 for a day’s work.
Several Washington state judges visited Ice and Customs and Border Protection officials at the centre in 2010, in a local initiative to discuss deportation protocols, including detention conditions and the practice of arresting people at courthouses.
“We didn’t make much progress,” said Judge Erik Rohrer, who serves on the superior court in Clallam County, where undocumented agricultural workers have been nabbed. He expressed unease about privatising detention. “I don’t have a good feeling about it.”
Geo Group declined to comment but in previous statements to reporters said the company provides “high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments”.
Detainees at Northwest, or any other center, have two options: sign a voluntary deportation form and be whisked to their country of birth, banished but free, or be held in detention and fight to remain in the US – a process so cumbersome that they may remain locked up for years before a decision is made.
Because the cases are civil, not criminal, detainees are not entitled to court-appointed lawyers. More than 80% of those in Tacoma have no lawyers, according to the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project. A shortage of asylum officers and judges – a contrast to the Border Patrol’s exponentially increasing manpower – further slows proceedings.
“The default position is to keep people locked up. It turns the system on its head,” said Matt Adams, of the NIRP. “People are waiting two, three years for a hearing. They’re being treated as if being punished for a crime.”
There are no “contact visits”. Glass panes separate detainees from visiting relatives. They must speak through phones.
Mendoza came to prominence when he and another inmate, Jesus Gaspar Navarro, persisted with a hunger strike, and required medical observation, after other strikers resumed eating. “The first six days were the hardest but the body gets used to it,” he said.
A few days after he spoke with the Guardian, Mendoza and 19 other inmates were transferred to solitary confinement – punishment, activists said, for a renewed hunger strike. Most were subsequently returned to the general population, but Mendoza remains in solitary. Ice officials said they were segregated for trying to intimidate other detainees into joining the hunger strike.
When Mendoza’s family last visited him, he was shackled and surrounded by four guards, prompting his children to cry, said Angelica Chazaro, an attorney who represents several detainees.
Relatives of detainees, and campaign groups like NotOneMoreDeportation.com, have staged regular rallies outside the facility.
The blue uniform that Mendoza wore when he spoke with the Guardian signified that he was not a criminal, but many in Tacoma wear orange garb that marks them out as having a criminal conviction. Among them are men who had green cards, but forfeited them after being found guilty of felonies. Many of them ended up here after completing sentences in prison.
“I made a mistake but I served my time. Being here is like double jeopardy,” said Juan Carlos Salazar-Orantes, 27, a high-school wrestling champion turned drug dealer.
He was seven when his family moved from Guatemala, and was undocumented, but managed to legalise his status. “I’ve grown up here, did everything an American kid would do. Everything that I know, my memories, my friends, is here.” Being sent back to a central American country he barely remembers is unjust, he said. “I’ve nothing there.”
Paulino Ruiz, 27, a convicted robber fighting deportation to Mexico, which he left aged three, said a fellow inmate slashed his wrists and tried to hang himself a day earlier. “I saw his face when they carried him out on a stretcher. They said he’d live. I’d say that’s the only good news. There’s no happiness here.”