A hunger strike at a private GEO Group immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington, has spread to another GEO facility in Texas after President Obama called for a review of immigration-enforcement policies last week. But will private prison lobbying ensure beds at these facilities stay filled?
Adelina Cáceres doesn't understand why her husband, David Vásquez, who is a documented resident, remains detained at the privately run Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas, as a result of a prior charge he already served time for years ago.
"Why do they call him a criminal?" Cáceres asked as she sobbed during a phone interview with Truthout. "He already paid for it. He made a big payment. He was in jail, and he paid for that problem. He was in jail for almost a month. ... And now the law is making him go back and pay again. Why?" she asked. She continued to weep as she explained how she is struggling to feed her three children and pay the bills since Vásquez has been detained.
"Double judgment" policies - such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program Operation Cross Check - is one of the many policies that have prompted Vásquez and approximately 120 more detainees at the Conroe detention center to launch a hunger strike Monday, after hearing word about a hunger strike and work stoppage at another immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington. Both facilities are run by the private company GEO Group.
At the peak of the Tacoma hunger strike, which began March 7 at the Northwest Detention Center, at least 750 detainees were refusing meals. Currently, there are two detainees at the Tacoma facility still on hunger strike.
The Tacoma detainees recorded messages in solidarity with the detainees in Texas, inspiring them to take similar action and draft a list of demands. According to attorney Ellis Muñoz, who is representing some of the hunger strikers and visited the Texas detention center, the hunger strikers' demands include an immediate halt to all deportations, just treatment for detainees, an end to crowding in cells, an end to double judgment policies, adequate food and medical care, affordable calling prices and lower rates at commissary.
According to Muñoz, ICE officials ordered Vásquez and another hunger striker to be isolated from the general population and placed into cells without blankets, pillows or toilet paper. The two apparently have been identified by prison officials as "leaders" of the ongoing decentralized protest.
Muñoz is working in conjunction with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based organization that fights to end for-profit incarceration. According to notes he took during his visit to the Joe Corley Detention Facility on March 18 that he shared with the organization's staff, and which Truthout reviewed, Muñoz overheard a prison guard telling a detainee, "no one will listen, stupid," and "there is not a strike."
ICE is not acknowledging the Texas hunger strike, according to Houston ICE spokesman Greg Palmore, who told Truthout no detainee has been found to be "on hunger strike status" at the facility.
Cáceres told Truthout that her husband said Monday that "ICE is lying. We are on a strike, and nobody is going to take food indefinitely."
If the allegations of retaliation against the hunger strikers at Conroe are, in fact, valid, it would follow the same pattern of punishment meted out against protesters at the Tacoma facility, according to immigrant rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando.
"At the Northwest Detention Center, GEO Group and ICE have retaliated by putting leaders in solitary confinement and threatening to force-feed others," Villalpando said in a press release. "With the strike spreading to Texas, it's time for ICE and GEO Group to recognize the detainees' demands instead of engaging in retaliation."
Ernestina Hernandez, whose husband, Manuel, is also on hunger strike at Conroe, told Truthout she hasn't heard from her husband and doesn't know where he is at the facility.
"I cry every day," she said. "We are broken. We don't know where Manuel is. My daughter, she cries too, and people won't help us, saying nothing at all. It's terrible for all, for me and my family and the other families too."
Hernandez then put her 13-year-old daughter on the phone shortly. "I have to be here for my dad," she said. "We have to keep on trying."
"Deporter-in-Chief" Calls For Review of Immigration-Enforcement Policies
President Obama has earned the title of "Deporter-in-Chief" from many immigrant-rights advocacy groups because of the record numbers of deportations his administration has ordered since he came to office. The Obama administration has overseen nearly 2 million deportations, more than any other president in history.
Obama, citing concern about family separation, called for a review of his administration's immigration-enforcement policies last Thursday, to see if enforcement could be accomplished "more humanely within the confines of the law," he said. Obama announced the decision during a meeting with Hispanic lawmakers last week, telling them that he ordered Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to conduct the review. But the White House said it would not suspend deportations.
The announcement comes in response to continuous pressure from grassroots immigration reform advocacy organizations, who say they can't wait on the House of Representatives to act on immigration reform legislation. The call for review contradicts what the president has claimed for the past few months - that his hands are tied by current immigration policy. However, many activists say the review will not be enough.
"To talk about deportations as humane is an oxymoron," said Marisa Franco, who is lead organizer of the Not One More campaign at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). "We don't think that the administration needs to look very far. They don't need to look farther than these people putting their lives and their health on the line to protest the conditions they are living under and the ways in which they find themselves in these detention centers," she said.
Franco said NDLON is organizing its own review commission and plans to issue its own set of recommendations from constituent groups such as former and current undocumented immigrants and the family members of those who are in detention. The organization also is preparing for a national day of action on deportations April 5.
The hunger strikes have highlighted specific aspects of federal immigration policy such as the "bed mandate" policy, which sets a quota of 34,000 beds that the Department of Homeland Security is required to fill to receive appropriations. Another policy the strikers criticize is that of mandatory detention, in which immigrants suspected of being undocumented are held indefinitely without bail pending deportation review. The policy leaves people such as Vásquez, who have been apprehended under Operation Cross Check, in limbo at detention centers while authorities review their immigration status.
The proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2015, released this month, eliminates the bed mandate but still contains more than $1.3 billion allocated for 30,000 detention beds, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
And while Democrats and Republicans have wrestled over these policies on The Hill, the ongoing hunger strikes are part of the much larger Not One More campaign, which uses civil disobedience, among other tactics, to push for an end to the ongoing deportation crisis.
Franco told Truthout that the hunger strike at the Tacoma detention center was inspired after detainees witnessed organizers protesting outside the facility in February. "It's all connected at the end of the day," Franco said.
GEO Group's Modus Operandi From Tacoma to Texas
One of the first private prison contracts awarded in the United States to a Corrections Corporation of America immigration detention facility in Houston in 1984. Since then, the industry has grown at a rapid pace, with the largest number of private prisons and immigrant detention centers in Texas.
The Boca Raton, Florida-based GEO Group operates 98 detainment and incarceration centers around the world and is the second-largest private prison corporation in the United States. The company has come under fire in the past for its conditions and practices at its facilities.
"GEO's immigration facilities provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary. Our facilities adhere to strict contractual requirements and standards set by ICE, and the agency employs several full-time, on-site contract monitors who have a physical presence at each of GEO's facilities," a GEO Group spokesman wrote in an emailed statement to Truthout.
But detainees at the Tacoma facility say they went on hunger strike in response to conditions such as abuse from prison guards, poor nutrition and policies that allowed them to be paid only $1 a day for custodial work.
Cáceres relayed the conditions at the Conroe facility on behalf of her husband, telling Truthout her husband told her there are 48 detainees to one cell block, with only two toilets for everyone. She said that detainees with infected and open wounds were given only painkillers – nothing with which to clean or disinfect their wounds.
The Immigration Bottom Line
"As a matter of long-standing policy, our company does not take a position on or advocate for any specific immigration policy," the GEO Group spokesman wrote in his email to Truthout.
But federal immigration policies such as mandatory detention and the bed mandate policies have been fiercely lobbied for by GEO Group's political action committee, and the policy ultimately affects the company's bottom line. The company's profits, along with the rest of the private prison industry, have skyrocketed as a result of the Obama administration's immigration enforcement policies, which have increased the demand for detention centers.
GEO Group's political-action committee has shelled out $188,000 to candidates at all levels of government in this year's election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with a majority of that cash going to Democrats.
The company promised last year that it wouldn't lobby Congress concerning issues related to immigration reform but went back on that promise, spending about $40,000 to lobby both houses of Congress on "alternatives" to detention.
GEO Group's political action committee gave $10,000, one of its top contributions, to Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat. His district prosecuted the most undocumented immigrants for crossing the border and was behind only Arizona for felony prosecutions for re-entry offenses, according to a report by Grassroots Leadership. He has also championed Operation Streamline, which funnels immigrants into the federal court system.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, GEO Group has for many years "participated in the task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that pushed bills that lengthened time in prison, such as so-called 'truth-in-sentencing' and 'three strikes' legislation, as models for states to adopt across the nation."
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has given more than $5.1 billion of contracts to private prison operators detaining undocumented immigrants in 2012, according to The Associated Press.
"[GEO Group] is lobbying to guarantee profit for themselves, profiting off of people's misery," Franco said. "While the United States goes across the world trying to talk about human rights, this should be an embarrassment. Rather than retaliating and punishing and threatening whistleblowers and, essentially, human rights monitors, ICE should be welcoming and actively taking measures to address these problems."