With attention focused on other aspects of immigration reform, the federal government has quietly gone on a massive immigrant prison building spree. Since 1999, the Bureau of Prisons has contracted for the operation of 13 for-profit private prisons located mostly in isolated towns far from the prying eyes of activists, prisoner’s families or attorneys. Five are located in Texas. Run by three private companies, these 13 “criminal alien requirement” prisons, as the BOP calls them, house one of America’s fastest-growing prison populations: immigrants in federal custody, many convicted for the crime of illegally crossing the border. The 13 facilities collectively house more than 25,000 immigrant prisoners at a cost to US taxpayers estimated at $1bn a year.
Immigrants in a for-profit detention center in Conroe are refusing to eat to protest conditions at the facility. The protests in Texas follow a similar hunger strike that began two weeks ago at a Tacoma, Washington, detention center. Both facilities are owned by scandal-plagued GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the world. The protests are part of a wave of hunger strikes that immigrants have started in detention centers across the nation to call attention to what they say is the unjust practice of locking up immigrants and separating families through deportation.
The families of the detainees on Wednesday gathered outside the all-male Joe Corley Detention Facility north of Houston to call on jail officials not to retaliate against the hunger strike leaders. Adelina Caceres said that her partner, David Vasquez, has been kept in solitary confinement at Corley as punishment for helping to start the strike. Vasquez has been in the detention center for nearly a year, she said.
Carlos Gutierrez rolled into Austin Saturday after a 701-mile bicycle ride from El Paso. Austin was the final destination on his 12-day ride across Texas to raise awareness about Mexican asylum seekers.
News cameras crowded around an exhausted and emotional Gutierrez as he carefully stepped off his bike and looked around, searching the crowd for his father’s face. For the next few minutes, family members and supporters took turns hugging the 35-year old cyclist.
Just two years ago a ride like this would have been unthinkable. A successful businessman in Chihuahua, Gutierrez was targeted by cartel members who demanded monthly extortion payments of $10,000. When Gutierrez could no longer pay, cartel members cut off his feet and left him to die as an example to other business owners.
In an attempt to move Republican leaders in the House to reignite the immigration reform debate, thousands of immigrants in more than 140 cities marched on Saturday, demanding reform and an end to deportations. The demonstrations set the stage for a larger protest planned for tomorrow in Washington, D.C.
In Texas, thousands marched. Houston saw the biggest turnout, with organizers estimating nearly 2,000 demonstrators. Close to 1,000 people took to the streets in Dallas, according to organizers, and rallies in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi drew hundreds. Huge demonstrations in Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles sent the same message to Washington: Immigrants are no longer afraid, but they are tired of waiting.
“The government shutdown isn’t going to shut down the issue,” says Connie Paredes, who helped organize the Dallas march with Texas Organizing Project. “The issue is still there and we’re going to continue fighting for immigration reform and for a pathway to citizenship.”
After years of polarizing debate and disagreement, the U.S. Senate passed the first “comprehensive” immigration reform bill in decades. The bill received bipartisan support, with 14 Republicans joining Senate Democrats and Independents in a 68-32 vote. But the bill’s provision for ramping up border security – and the reason it got conservative support – angered many residents along the border who are tired of militarization in their communities.
“This amendment makes border communities a sacrificial lamb, in exchange for the road to citizenship,” Christian Ramirez, director of San Diego’s Southern Border Communities Coalition told The New York Times.
The U.S. Senate’s vote Tuesday to debate the bipartisan Gang of Eight’s immigration bill on the Senate floor surprised DREAMers and bill negotiators, who had hoped for at least 60 votes to move the bill forward, but actually received 82 votes. The 15 senators who voted against the bill were Republicans, including Texas’ Ted Cruz, who said the bill would “make the problem of illegal immigration … worse rather than better.” Despite Cruz’s failed attempt to block the legislation, 28 Republicans voted to move forward on the bill, which would provide an eventual and conditional pathway to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Texas’ other Senator John Cornyn voted to move the bill forward but then offered an amendment, which two bill negotiators referred to as a “poison pill.” Cornyn wants the ability to monitor every mile of the international border and a 90 percent apprehension rate of immigrants trying to cross it illegally. The amendment would bar undocumented immigrants from applying for legal status until after these and other conditions are met. Cornyn and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky say Cornyn’s amendment is essential to securing conservative support in both chambers. But border residents say they’re sick of border fences being built around their homes and the increased surveillance and militarization of their communities, which has only resulted in more migrant deaths along the border.
Lourdes Flores didn’t know she wanted to help others until someone helped her. She was born in Reynosa, Mexico, and moved to Mission, Texas, at age 12. When she graduated from high school she couldn’t legally work, so family members suggested she join a new community organization an Irish nun had founded in nearby Las Milpas. Las Milpas is one of many colonias along the border wracked by poverty and lacking basic necessities. At the time, the colonia didn’t have paved roads, public schools, a fire station, doctors or a pharmacy.
Flores, 42, has been with the organization, A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE), ever since, working to improve conditions in colonias in the Rio Grande Valley. ARISE’s mission is to aid communities by helping residents identify life goals and helping them reach those goals on their own. Its guiding tenet: Don’t do anything for anybody that they can’t do for themselves. The organization’s founder, Sister Gerrie Naughton, recruited Flores early on and encouraged her to share her skills.
“I was discovering I had abilities I didn’t know I had; it made me feel really good,” Flores says. “I saw how much ARISE changed me, and I thought, ‘I can’t keep this for myself; I have to share it with other women.’”