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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

ICE Detainees: ‘Our Voices Need To Be Heard!’

from the Sept. 21, 2022 Bulletin

labor immigration and border issues

Esperanza Cuautle Velazquez co-directs Pangea Servicios Legales, an agency that provides guidance and legal services to people facing deportation proceedings. She works directly with people in ICE detention facilities, and two of those detainees, Pedro and Gustavo, are now participating in a detention facility labor strike. We recently spoke to the three about the ICE detainee situation that people like Pedro and Gustavo — we’re using only their first names here — are facing.


Pedro and Gustavo, how did you land in an ICE detention center?

Pedro: My parents brought me from México 34 years ago when I was about four months old. In the 1990s, we tried to apply for citizenship, but didn’t succeed. As a teenager, I hadn’t grown up with the necessary tools to overcome the social issues I encountered, so this put me into a broken justice system that eventually sent me to prison.


While there, I had a record of good behavior and proved I was not a threat to public safety or a flight risk, and that earned me a place in “fire camp,” a state prison system program. I worked two seasons as a firefighter during California’s biggest wildfires in 2020 and 2021. But instead of being released after my prison sentence ended — like other prisoners who finished their sentences — prison officials immediately transferred me to a federal ICE detention center in McFarland.


Gustavo: I have a similar story, except my parents came from El Salvador. After landing in prison, I took initiative to redeem my mistakes. I took college courses and was accepted into fire camp. From 2019 into 2022, I worked as a first responder fighting fires throughout California. People saw us save their homes and shook our hands in gratitude.


I completed my sentence, but then, instead of sending me home, the prison transferred me to the Golden State Annex detention center. I had paid my dues. But the prison handed me off to ICE for indefinite detention, despite my positive record.

What’s been the hardest part of your detention?


Pedro: The uncertainty. In prison, you have a release date to look forward to. Here, who knows how long you’ve got? The ones affected most? My four kids. They expected me home for the holidays when my prison term ended. My detention devastated them.


You also don’t know what you’re going to miss in detention. During my prison time, I lost my best friend — my father  and I couldn’t even grieve properly.  This crushes the spirit, the heart, the mind. 


Gustavo: Uncertainly about the future has been the hardest part for me. I’m scared I’ll be deported to El Salvador, a country I don’t know. I’m afraid of getting tagged as a gang member. I could get killed. I thought I was putting the incarceration chapter of my life behind me. Now I’m living in even greater jeopardy. I worked really hard to become a better version of myself. I wanted to put all the knowledge and skills I acquired into practice. Now I’m still confined for the sole reason of not having legal status.

Gustavo: At the fire camp

“Detention” sounds better than “incarcerated,” and “detention center” sounds better than “prison.” How do the detention centers and prisons compare? 


Pedro: A profit-hungry private company, the GEO Group, has a contract with ICE to run detention centers. In both prisons and detention centers, we shop at the commissary for necessary items like deodorant. ICE uses the same commissary vendor as the state prisons do, but ICE detention center costs run 50 to 100 percent higher. A 15-minute phone call in a publicly run prison costs 35 cents. That same call costs $1.05 in a GEO facility. 

Gustavo: Both prisons and detention centers profit off of human beings, creating a vestige of slavery. Both places exploit our labor. We got paid $1 an hour in fire camp. We get paid only $1 per day for the janitorial work they force us to do here, less than 1 percent of the California minimum wage. Compare that to George Zoley, the CEO of the GEO Group. He took home $11,836,480 in 2021!

Photo: Joyce Xi and the Dignity Not Detention coalition 

How did your strike get started?


Gustavo: This past April 26, after ongoing problems with delays in medical care and other deplorable conditions at the Mesa Verde detention facility, folks housed in Charlie dorm had enough. They decided to withhold their labor. As of September 17, detained people at Mesa Verde have been on strike for 144 days.


Our demands: that we be paid according to the California minimum wage of $15 per hour, that we be treated with dignity and respect by the facility administration, that ICE and GEO improve the substandard conditions we face. As of today, ICE and the GEO have not budged. Instead, they’ve retaliated against strike organizers. They’ve sent them to solitary confinement and threatened to transfer them out of state.  


Esperanza, advocates and attorneys filed a lawsuit contesting the $1 a day pay. Do you see that pay as the main abuse or the issue that has the best chance of a legal victory that would draw attention to conditions in these facilities?


Esperanza Cuautle: This isn’t either the first strike or the first time that people in detention have protested their conditions. In fact, multiple complaints to Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties have called out ICE over issues ranging from the absence of balanced meals and contaminated water to the lack of training in handling toxic chemicals and medical negligence. The Mesa Verde and Global State Annex detention facilities have only one doctor for both facilities and not anyone to handle mental health needs!


A Washington state suit against another GEO Group facility did challenge the $1 a day pay. A jury found the detainees to be employees who should have been paid the minimum wage — and found that they deserved back pay as well. That verdict encouraged us to file a suit too, and if we win, that victory will hit the GEO execs where they most don’t want to be hurt: in their pocketbooks. But GEO is appealing the Washington state case, and resolving our own suit will likely take several years.

Undocumented people like you, Gustavo and Pedro, pose no threat. What can we do to abolish ICE’s detention center system? 


Gustavo: We could close these places down. Our lives matter. Throughout decades of history, immigrants of color have been targeted and excluded, detained and deported. This must stop.

Photo: LCIP

Abolishing the detention system will be a long-term fight and require the organizing and mobilizing of everyone in our communities. Those of us in ICE custody are going to continue to challenge the derogatory and criminalizing narrative about us. We’re going to publicly share our stories of struggle and resilience. We’re going to urge members of Congress to hold ICE accountable for its corrupt and inhumane practices. Our voices need to be heard!


Esperanza Cuautle: I want to emphasize the organizing and mobilizing that Pedro and Gustavo are talking about. Those of us on the outside need to call on our congressional representatives, on state agencies, on all our labor and community allies. We need them all to join the fight for justice, liberation, and family reunification.


And to help those strikers who now have no money for necessities at their detention center commissary, please donate to the strike fund!