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Rights Groups Demand Biden Reverse Trump Immigration Changes as COVID Surges in ICE Jails

StoryDecember 16, 2020
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Image Credit: Saiyare Refaei

President-elect Joe Biden promised to reverse Donald Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies during his 2020 campaign, but since he was elected, Biden has not included immigration among his top four priorities. Hundreds of immigrant activists and their allies caravaned through Biden’s home city of Wilmington, Delaware, demanding he issue a moratorium on deportations and advance a path to citizenship for undocumented people within his first 100 days in office. This comes as more than half of ICE’s immigration detention centers are currently reporting coronavirus outbreaks. Protesters are also mobilizing at the Northwest Detention Center run by GEO Group in Tacoma, Washington, where another detainee has tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the number up to at least 22. ICE has punished many who protest conditions and call for release by putting them in solitary confinement. “Guards and employees of ICE are bringing in the virus. They’re testing positive and yet coming in to work,” says Maru Mora-Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant activist and co-founder of La Resistencia. We also speak with Manuel Abrego, head of La Resistencia’s phone support system for people detained in Tacoma, who describes how he spent eight months in solitary confinement at the jail after going on hunger strike to protest conditions.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President-elect Joe Biden promised to reverse Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies during his 2020 campaign, but since he was elected, Biden has not included immigration among his top four priorities — the pandemic, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.

Well, on Tuesday, hundreds of immigrant activists and their allies caravaned through Biden’s home city of Wilmington, Delaware, where they demanded he issue a moratorium on deportations and advance a path to citizenship for undocumented people within his first hundred days in office. This is Yatziri Tovar with Make the Road Action.

YATZIRI TOVAR: We are in Rodney Square, and this is in Wilmington, Delaware. And the reason why we chose to be here is because this is where President-elect Biden is living right now. And so, what better way to make sure that our voices are being heard than coming down to his hometown? And we’re coming down from seven different states, all from the East Coast, all the way over here to his home, to making sure that, you know, he doesn’t forget our communities, doesn’t forget the promises that he said that he was going to deliver on during his campaign trail. You know, we’re just weeks away from inauguration.

AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Biden sent a letter to the organizers of the event, writing, quote, “The work of realizing our shared vision is before us — the good and necessary work that will lead to an immigration system that is fair, humane, and that reflects our values as a nation of immigrants,” he wrote.

Caravaners also stopped at Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, not far from the Bergen County Jail. Both jails contract with ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to hold immigrants who have civil immigration cases, not criminal charges. Over the weekend, police fired smoke grenades at a solitary rally outside the Bergen County Jail, where they arrested nine people.

PROTESTERS: We don’t see no riot here! Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here! Why are you in riot gear?

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the archdiocese of Newark signed onto a statement calling for, quote, “the immediate release of the men on hunger strike and of all people at the Bergen County Jail to protect their health and well-being.”

This comes as more than half of ICE’s immigration detention jails are currently reporting coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, protesters also gathered outside the Northwest Detention Center, run by GEO Group, in Tacoma, Washington, where another detainee there tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, bringing the number up to at least 22. In this recording from inside the ICE jail from December 10th, you can hear a guard telling people detained in the same dorm that they’ll be separated into individual cells. This is Captain Leroy Portillo. Listen carefully.

CPT. LEROY PORTILLO: Everybody’s going to be quarantined at the same time. The only difference is that you’re going to be quarantined in individual cells. [translated] Each person is going to be in their own cell, only while we quarantine. You understand? It is a precaution you need to take to protect the life and health of each person. It is very important. If you don’t, you are at risk in here, because someone has tested positive, and they’re still here.

AMY GOODMAN: The Northwest Detention Center is run by the private prison company GEO Group, which issued a statement that it’s, quote, “taken extensive measures to ensure the health and safety of those in our care and our employees, who are on the front lines making daily sacrifices at the center,” they said. ICE also reported a contract pharmacy technician had become the eighth worker at the jail to test positive.

For more, we go to Seattle, where we’re joined by Maru Mora-Villalpando, co-founder of La Resistencia. She is herself undocumented. Also with us, Manuel Abrego. He is head of La Resistencia’s phone support system for people held in the Tacoma ICE Processing Center. He was released from there in 2018 after being held in solitary confinement for eight months for going on a hunger strike. Both Maru and Manuel are featured in a new report in The Progressive magazine headlined “Hunger for Justice,” written by Democracy Now! co-news director Renée Feltz.

Welcome, both, to Democracy Now! Maru, let’s begin with you. Explain what’s going on in this jail and where you are, in Tacoma, and what you’re demanding.

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: [inaudible] has seen a spread of the virus, of coronavirus. We have seen, since October and November, the spreading of the virus not only for people in detention, but even employees, both of GEO and ICE. We know that information, thanks to the people in detention that have reached out to us and given us this information, in this way pressuring ICE to actually release information to the public and to a judge, because there’s some pending litigation.

What we know right now in Tacoma is that we finally have confirmation of at least one person that, while in detention, while in quarantine, tested positive. ICE kept arguing that the only people with COVID in detention were those that they brought from mostly Department of Correction custody, other prisons either here in Washington or Oregon. They were saying that they were able to contain the virus, and this proves it’s not true, this latest case.

Also, the fact that guards and employees of ICE are bringing in the virus. They’re testing positive, and yet coming to work. We just learned last night that some people that were working in the kitchen were asked not to come to work — because, remember, they get paid $1 a day — to not go back to the kitchen, because it seemed that they have been in contact with somebody else, somebody else detained, or possibly an employee that has tested positive for COVID-19.

And, you know, since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen this constant organizing and resistance from people in detention staging hunger strikes. I believe this is the fifth or sixth hunger strike. I actually lost count. But what we know since last night is that at least five people have now joined a hunger strike. One of them has now today reached 13 days of the hunger strike, and he actually messaged us last night saying that he’s being harassed by the medical staff, saying if he continues his hunger strike while in medical isolation, he will be losing his case; it will have an impact on his immigration case, and he will lose and get deported.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maru, could you talk about how ICE releases people, including there was a mandate released this past Friday night at 9 p.m. in the evening? Could you talk about how they deal with these cases?

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: This is very unique. We have never seen such a thing. You know, we’ve been doing this for such a long time, and we know that ICE releases people. They get them ready. They call them to an area that is called intake, sometimes around 11:00 in the morning or so, and there spend there some hours, and around 3 to 7 p.m., people get released throughout the afternoon, early evening.

Yet, last Friday, somebody texted me in the middle of the night, close to midnight, but I didn’t see the text until Saturday morning, because we actually had to drive somebody to the airport very early to also go home. He had also been released on Friday. They actually were in the same pod. So, I was able to go pick him up Saturday morning at 7:00 in the morning outside the Northwest Detention Center. It was 34 degrees. He had to spend the night outside the detention center in a tent that was set up for an organization that welcomes people as they get released from detention, and they give them, you know, clothing and that sort of thing. And because of COVID, they set up a tent, because they cannot have people inside an RV they have set up there. So he literally spent the night inside the tent. And when I arrived to pick him up, he was extremely cold. He was wearing only a sweater. He was not wearing a mask.

This was total retaliation, because he had been organizing. He had been supporting other people. He had been helping other people file documents to get released. And this is just ridiculous that ICE will release somebody so late at night, knowing there’s nobody out there. The detention center is in nowhere. You know, there’s no bus station. There’s nothing. It’s a dead end. It’s an industrial zone. This guy came from Alaska. He had no idea where he was. He got lucky that his cellphone worked so he can reach me. And in the morning I was able to pick him up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s the response of ICE to those who do attempt to either go on hunger strike or organize within the detention centers?

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: Immediate retaliation. Right now we’ve seen that a lot of people have stopped eating, not because they’re on hunger strike; it’s just because they don’t want to eat the food. The things are getting so bad in the detention center that they are told immediately, “So, if you’re not eating, then you’re going to go to the hole,” which is, you know, the way people know the solitary confinement. So, what people have told us is that they literally go and grab the tray from the food cart, and they just put the tray back, just to make sure that ICE doesn’t think that they’re on hunger strike. Yet they’re not eating. But people are afraid, definitely afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Manuel Abrego into this conversation. You have firsthand experience of being in the hole, of solitary confinement. I mean, these are civil jails. The crimes being charged are some kind of violation of immigration status. And here you were put in the solitary confinement for eight months. What is it like there? And what are you hearing, now that you’ve been released because of national outcry about how you were held, from the people you’re taking calls from?

MANUEL ABREGO: So, the cells are small cells. You know, they’re like 9 by 12. So you don’t have anything in there. It’s just you and yourself, you know? They don’t let you use the phone any time you want to. They don’t let you come out of your cell. It’s like 23 hours a day you are in the cell, just for complaining or protesting for what you believe strong, you know?

So, they also give you that right to protest. You know, in ICE rules, they say, “OK, you can protest. You can participate in a hunger strike if you don’t think that — if you think that your rights are being violated.” They give you the right to do that, but at the same time they take it away from you, because they put you in segregation, and they scare you with that, you know?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Manuel, we have about a minute left, but could you talk about what you’re hearing on the hotline from people who are still in that Northwest Detention Center?

MANUEL ABREGO: Yeah. They’re all scared of being in there right now because of COVID. And also, you know, when they get quarantined, they put you in segregation, you know? It’s like segregation. You go in there, and they don’t have no contact with anyone.

So, we are their voice outside. And yeah, it’s like they’re getting punished for everything that’s going on, you know, with COVID and for the hunger strikes and everything. So, they’re all worried. They don’t even want to eat, because they think they’re going to get infected, if someone is in the kitchen infected. You know, we just got news yesterday also that someone in the kitchen tested positive for COVID. So, that’s what’s going on in there right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maru, in the last 30 seconds that we have, could you talk about what you hope President-elect Biden does, when he gets inaugurated, on these detention centers?

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: He cannot keep using us Latinx and immigrants as a political prop. He needs to deliver. We expect him to do, in his first hundred days, a moratorium on all deportations. And that doesn’t mean keeping people sitting in detention while deportations don’t happen. He needs to create a process to release absolutely everyone of detention centers; shut down all detention centers, not only the private ones; begin a process for abolishing ICE, so we can also go into a process of healing, which means reparations for absolutely everybody that has been in detention and has been suffering the cruelty of ICE in ICE detention.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for joining us, and of course we’re going to continue to cover this issue. Maru Mora-Villalpando and Manuel Abrego are with the immigrant rights group La Resistencia in Seattle, Washington.

And a happy birthday to our Democracy Now! co-news director, Renée Feltz! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Stay safe. Wear a mask. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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