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“Obama Is Trying to Vanish Us”: Immigrants Fight Record Deportations with Protests, Hunger Strikes

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As the number of deportations under President Obama approaches two million people and immigration reform lags under Republican obstruction, undocumented immigrants are fighting back through acts of civil disobedience. Hundreds have gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border this week to support a group of undocumented youths and families seeking re-entry into the United States. Much further north, in Tacoma, Washington, a hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center that started with as many as 750 participants has entered its sixth day. The privately owned facility used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is owned by the GEO Group. The hunger strikers say they are protesting record deportations and prison conditions that pay them as little as $1 a day. We are joined from Seattle by Maru Mora Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant and activist with the group Latino Advocacy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As the number of immigrants deported under President Obama approaches two million, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus plans to vote today on a resolution asking the president to stem the tide. This comes after several senators called last week for executive action by Obama to slow, quote, “needless” deportations. Also last week, Janet Murguía, the head of the National Council of La Raza, joined other Latino advocacy groups in calling President Obama the “deporter-in-chief.”

Far from Capitol Hill, undocumented immigrants have increased pressure on Obama through acts civil disobedience. On Monday, hundreds gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border to support a group of youths seeking re-entry into the United States. It was the third action in two years in which people deported from Mexico tried to return to the United States without legal documents. Another action is planned today as part of the #BringThemHome campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Much further north, in Tacoma, Washington, a hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center, that started with as many as 750 people, has reportedly entered its sixth day, though it’s unclear how many people are still refusing to eat. The privately owned facility used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is owned by the GEO Group. Democracy Now! obtained recordings of some of the detained immigrants who participated in the strike and explained their concerns.

HUNGER-STRIKING IMMIGRANT 1: [translated] So that they give us better food, so that they give us lower prices on what they sell here in the commissary, and so that they stop the deportations, I’m hoping we can get some support from all the people who are listening, because—don’t believe what you hear—life in here is not very easy. They have us here working for one dollar a day. We work for four hours, five hours sometimes, for just one dollar.

HUNGER-STRIKING IMMIGRANT 2: Our main goal was to bring to light the situation with the immigration reform, which is just being talked about, but there’s really no changes happening. So we felt like, you know, we have to do our part to speak up and say something. I mean, at the end of the day, yes, we are immigrants, but what bonds us more is that we are all human beings. We have families. We have loved ones. And as humans, we do make mistakes, but at the same time, it is also in our human nature to learn from those mistakes. And all we ask is just an opportunity to fight for our lives, which is here, since we’ve invested so much time into this great country.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, immigration authorities said some of those on hunger strike were under medical evaluation. The detainees told Democracy Now! they had faced threats of force-feeding.

HUNGER-STRIKING IMMIGRANT 2: We received threats from the guards saying that they, after 72 hours, we—would be taking our commissary privileges away, that they would—that we were going to go see medical and get tubes down our throats and force-fed. And I’m not an animal, like, I can say that, all of us that are here. It’s a cruel way to just grab somebody and put them down and put a tube down their throat. Like, we’re here to fight our immigration case and to get back to our families. We’re not here to be tortured and threatened by these officers.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the hunger strike and the wave of protests by immigrants, we go to Seattle, Washington, where we’re joined by Maru Mora Villalpando. She is an activist and undocumented immigrant with the group Latino Advocacy and part of the #Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Give us the latest on the hunger strike. How many people are still participating, Maru?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Thank you. Good morning.

We don’t know. We don’t have exact numbers. It’s really difficult to assess, due to the retaliation strategies that ICE has imposed. They have been very good at making people difficult to communicate amongst each other. We know that they started isolating people from day one. They were trying to supposedly assess them medically, and instead they were being told that the hunger strike had stopped, that they should stop, too, that the hunger strike didn’t work. So they also revoked their privilege to watch TV or to listen to the radio. So, the way they have managed the organizing that happened in the inside is to stop them from communicating to each other.

So, we have been able to talk to a few. And yesterday, as a matter of fact, we saw three people leaving the detention center that were released, and the three of them confirmed to us that the strike continues. And each of them would say there is about eight to 12 people that they know that they continue the strike. They’re in different pods, they call it, throughout the facility. For us, it’s not so much anymore about the numbers, but it’s about how ICE has been retaliating. And instead of taking the opportunity of these whistleblowers coming forward and saying, “These are the conditions that this private corporation has imposed to us in making profit, profit out of our misery,” instead, ICE has decided to retaliate against them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maru, could you talk about this private company, GEO, that is actually running this center, and not only getting paid by the government to house the detainees, but is also paying them a dollar a day to work while they’re in there?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Yes. This corporation is one of the top five around the world to run private prisons. They have 98 facilities around the world. This one in Tacoma is the Northwest Detention Center, which brings people from Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, and sometimes are people transferred from the border with Mexico, or Alabama, some other places. They started with this center about 10 years ago, when they opened. And the capacity of the center—they call it beds, they don’t call it people—they started with about between 300 to 500 people capacity; it has grown to a 1,600 people capacity. They claim right now to have only 1,300 people inside. They charge between $120 to $160 per day per person, so just do the math. And when they charge that to the federal government, that includes me paying for my own future incarceration in this center.

Inside the center, they call it, quote-unquote, a “volunteer work program.” So people that are inside can choose to work in the kitchen, laundry facilities or janitorial services. So, GEO Incorporated not only saves money by not hiring regular employees, but they only pay one dollar a day. And that’s been the way, the case, since they opened so many years ago. People are working between four to five hours, in some instances more. We know that some years back 150 people wanted to strike also, to do a hunger strike, because they hadn’t been paid for over 30 days.

AMY GOODMAN: Maru, we only have a minute to go, but I wanted to ask why you’re willing to speak out so publicly and say that you’re undocumented. You risk arrest.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: I do. I do. As a matter of fact, we did the February 24th civil disobedience action outside the detention center that really sparked this hunger strike in the inside. And I’m not the only one. There are several of us across the nation that have decided to stop being afraid or feeling shame of not having a piece of paper that allow us to work here or to live here. But we rather want to make sure that people know that it’s the government the one that should be ashamed of having created a mass incarceration system by having criminalized so many of us, 11 million, that some years back people will talk about saying that we are undocumented. And now we’re only nine million pretty much left, because Obama administration has decided to vanish us from this country.

And I’m doing this for my daughter. I’m doing this for the daughters and sons of so many other people. And I’m doing this exactly the same reason why the hunger strikers have put their lives on the line, their own health on the line, because they kept repeating this to us every time: “We’re doing this for our families, for everybody that is in detention centers across the nation right now, and for all immigrants outside there, so they can see that they’re not alone.”

And as long as Obama doesn’t take his work to be done—he always told us, “Yes, you can.” Well, now we’re saying to him, “Yes, he can, and he should do this.” And he always told us to “Make me.” So now we’re making him do this. This is, for us, important that this deportation is stopped right now, that deferred action is granted to everybody that is undocumented in the country right now, because we cannot rely on Congress to actually do the right thing. They haven’t done it. We know they won’t. We’ve been used by them as a pawn in their political campaigns, in their political work. And we are here for our families, and we’re willing to risk everything, because this is—these are human rights, and that’s why we’re doing this. And we’re here for the strikers.

AMY GOODMAN: Maru, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Maru Mora Villalpando is an activist, undocumented Immigrant. She’s with the group Latino Advocacy, part of the #Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, speaking to us from Seattle, Washington. We’ll continue to follow that hunger strike at the detention facility.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Boston and New York to talk about Northeastern University students whose organization has been shut down. Stay with us.

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