Jayapal and Smith push bill to end immigration’s private prisons

A protestor climbed a light pole outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on Monday and hung and unfurled a sign reading "You are not alone" in Spanish to the detainees inside. (Photo by Angelica Chazaro)
A protestor climbed a light pole outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma in 2015 and hung and unfurled a sign reading “You are not alone” in Spanish to the detainees inside. (Photo by Angelica Chazaro)

Seattle-area legal assistant and DREAMer Graciela Nuñez puts her fear of being detained in the U.S. immigration system in stark terms.

“I am more scared to be put in the Tacoma detention center than I am of being deported,” Nuñez said.

Nuñez, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) enrollee since 2013, cited reports of sexual abuse, exploitative labor practices, excessive use of force and worm-contaminated food to explain why places like the privately owned Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma instill such fear.

Acknowledgement of that fear was front and center on Monday when U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA7) and Adam Smith (D-WA9) joined local immigrant rights activists in a press conference highlighting the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act  — a bill that pushes for changes in the immigration detention system, including the end of private, for-profit detention centers like the Northwest Detention Center.

The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives on Oct. 3, would also ban the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from approving or renewing contracts with private prison companies. It also would repeal mandatory detentions and would restore oversight and accountability to the current system.

“The high moral cost of our inhumane immigration detention system is reprehensible. Large, private corporations operating detention centers are profiting off the suffering of men, women and children. We need an overhaul,” Jayapal said in a statement released last week. “It’s clear that the Trump administration is dismantling the few protections in place for detained immigrants even as he ramps up enforcement against parents and vulnerable populations.”

A total of 60 Representatives in the House, all Democrats, signed onto the bill.

Nuñez had mixed feelings about the proposed reforms.

“It’s nice that it’s happening,” she said. “But it’s also bittersweet because of the… years that these mistreatments have gone unreported, or even just ignored.”

Similar concerns have been at the forefront of protests at the Northwest Detention Center. Detainees have held hunger strikes in protest of the conditions at the detention center, and the Washington State Attorney General’s office has filed lawsuits against parent company GEO Group, for its practices of using prison labor.

Supporters of the legislation say the current lack of legal recourse makes it difficult to enforce the limited standards now in place.

One of the bill’s main provisions would call for a presumption of release, which would require authorities to prove that an immigration violation warrants detention instead of putting someone in detention during an investigation.

A recent case illustrates how quickly people entering the U.S. from another country get can caught up in the current mandatory detention process.

Cristina Alonso is a 22-year-old college student from Spain whose story went viral earlier this month. Alonso was detained in a jail for 48 hours after arriving at Portland International Airport with paperwork that caused confusion at airport immigration.

According to her host mom Laurie Bridges, who wrote an account for the ACLU of Oregon, Alonso wasn’t allowed any contact with her host family to help explain the situation nor would officials let her host family know where she’d been taken.

Bridges eventually located Alonso in a criminal jail in The Dalles, Oregon, which is about 90 minutes from the airport. All of her belongings had been confiscated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and she had no money in her jail phone account to contact anyone.

The bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, chaired by Republican Congressman Raúl Labrador of Idaho. Jayapal is a member of that subcommittee.

Activists and family members of detainees gather outside the gates of the Northwest Detention Center almost daily. (Photo by Damme Getachew)
Activists and family members of detainees gather outside the gates of the Northwest Detention Center almost daily. (Photo by Damme Getachew)
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