By Nick Braune
On January 9, some 70 people attended a rally/prayer vigil protesting the “tent city” immigration detention center in Raymondville, Texas. It was lively — although I was out of town, I saw a video clip of the event — with vigorous picketing, signs demanding that human rights be respected and calls on the megaphone for an end to the failed, cruel, immigration system.
The event was convened greatly by various United Methodist ministries and teams including the United Methodist Women Immigrant and Civil Rights Initiative. Watching the video, I recognized people joining in from Pax Christi in Brownsville, the Southwest Workers, People for Peace and Justice and Border Ambassadors.
The press release stated, “We call for closure of for-profit detention centers like Raymondville, which have a history of denying basic civil and human rights to immigrants. We call for basic rights for all immigrants.
“We call for an end to detentions and deportations until just immigration reform is in place. The reform should include a pathway to citizenship for migrants in the U.S.; protection of workers’ rights regardless of status; the unification of families, and humane border policies that respect human rights. The Willacy County detention center has had a series of allegations of horrendous conditions and abuse, including alleged sexual assaults on female detainees by guards, reports of detainees being fed rotten food and inadequate food, and poor access to medical and mental health care.”
The press release emphasized a “faith-based” approach, using the Pauline principle that, despite status and nationality differences, humans are fundamentally connected and “when one member suffers, we all suffer.”
I called Cindy Johnson, an organizer of the event and a deaconess for the United Methodist church. I had two questions for her, one about follow-up and one about the response of the guards. Answering the first question, she assured me that her group intends to keep the pressure on Raymondville, on ICE and their private contractors. She has been getting messages from people urging more public events, and smaller events are scheduled hopefully leading to a major one in May. (Johnson also told me she plans to attend the Valley-wide People for Peace and Justice “Gathering” in Weslaco on January 30th, the theme of which is that the fight against the Iraq and Afghanistan War and the fight for immigrant rights are connected.)
The other question I asked her concerned the guards. About two months ago there was a rally where some Raymondville guards became strangely belligerent and pulled out guns. Cautious because of that previous incident, Cindy’s group, before their vigil, took a lawyer to the site; they determined that there could be no reason for authorities to prevent demonstrations there. Johnson indicated that even the local sheriffs seemed to agree. The vigil went well and the guards behaved themselves.
(Incidentally, about two years ago, Amy Goodman, producer of a national media group, Democracy Now, was ordered away from the Raymondville detention center by a guard pointing a rifle at her. I interviewed someone who accompanied Goodman, and it was obvious that the guards were way out of bounds. The guards are poorly trained, as is the whole private staff running the fiasco there. It is operated by a Utah-based management and training corporation which is cost-cutting for extra profits wherever possible, at the expense of the immigrants and the whole tax-paying public.)
Because the rally was intended to help break the silence on detention centers, it was encouraging when the day after the rally the New York Times ran another critical report on America’s detention centers. The story has upped the ante considerably, reporting a trove of documents the paper and the ACLU had gathered, specifically looking at the 107 deaths of detainees nationwide (according to an ICE count) since 2003.
“Silence has long shrouded the men and women who die in the nation’s immigration jails,” said the Times. “For years, they went uncounted and unnamed in the public record. But behind the scenes, it is now clear, the deaths had already generated thousands of pages of government documents, including scathing investigative reports that were kept under wraps, and a trail of confidential memos and BlackBerry messages that show officials working to stymie outside inquiry.”
One incident found in documents newly released to the Times: In New Jersey a detained Guinean tailor was left in isolation for 13 hours without treatment after suffering a skull fracture. Eventually an ambulance was called. “While he lay in the hospital in a coma after emergency brain surgery, 10 agency managers in Washington and Newark conferred by telephone and e-mail on how to avoid costs of his care and the likelihood of ‘increased scrutiny and/or media exposure.’”
Documents show that they discussed sending the tailor back to Guinea, but they couldn’t because he hadn’t regained consciousness and he had tubes connected to him; they also discussed renewing his work permit so he could be eligible for Medicaid; they thought about a nursing home, but it would cost too much. Eventually they settled on a “humanitarian release” to relatives in New York who objected that they had no way to care for him. The issue became easier for agency managers when he died.
[This article also appears in Nick Braune’s column in the Mid-Valley Town Crier.]