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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Lots of Advances, Despite a Challenging 2020: UWCHR Project Updates

Detention managert Steve Jones stands at the intake door of the Cowlitz County Youth Center in Longview, January 31, 2020. (Photo credit: Courtney Talak, the Daily News.)
Detention managert Steve Jones stands at the intake door of the Cowlitz County Youth Center in Longview, January 31, 2020. (Photo credit: Courtney Talak, the Daily News.)

December 1, 2020

Family separation in the Pacific Northwest

The UWCHR continues its research and advocacy around the imprisonment of migrant children at the juvenile jail in Longview, Washington (Cowlitz County). In 2018, Director Angelina Godoy and the University of Washington were sued by Cowlitz County and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in response to our request for information regarding the legal bases for the detention of children in this facility; this litigation, apparently the first such suit in the country filed against an academic for seeking the lawful release of information, is ongoing.

Our research, however, continues apace. In April, UWCHR published a research report, “Immigrant Family Separation in Northwest Juvenile Jails,” examining these practices at Cowlitz County and a facility in Oregon called NORCOR co-written with Prof. Juliet Stumpf of the Lewis and Clark School of Law. In most of the cases investigated, migrant youth had been taken from their families who were living in the United States and sent thousands of miles away, to Cowlitz County or NORCOR, where they were held indefinitely on suspicion of civil immigration violations. Typically, migrant youth in federal custody are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement rather than held indefinitely by ICE; the report highlighted this practice as a form of family separation, and raised dire due process concerns about the indefinite detention of children in a jail. At the time of the report’s publication, Cowlitz County and NORCOR were the only two facilities in the nation to engage in this practice; subsequently, NORCOR’s board has voted to terminate its contract with ICE, leaving Cowlitz the only remaining facility in the nation. In March, most US citizen children were released from the Cowlitz county facility due to concerns about COVID-19 transmission; ICE, however, has continued to transfer new children into the facility since then.

Per the Keep Washington Working Act, Cowlitz County is required to terminate its contract with ICE by December 2021, but advocates including the ACLU, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, La Resistencia, and local organizations based in Longview are asking the facility to end the contract earlier in light of the human rights concerns it raises.

UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory serves as an informal symbol of UWCHR’s “Immigrant Rights Observatory” project. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Immigrant Rights Observatory

In 2019 and 2020, the Washington State Legislature passed two landmark laws regarding immigrant rights: the Keep Washington Working and Courts Open to All Acts, which together put restrictions on local and state agencies’ involvement with federal immigration enforcement. For example, local police and sheriffs are now prohibited from assisting or cooperating with immigration enforcement, sharing information with ICE or CBP, or detaining people solely based on civil immigration violations. Immigration enforcement activities are also prohibited at or near local courthouses, a troubling tactic which UWCHR investigated in our October 2019 report “Justice Compromised: Immigration Arrests at Washington State Courthouses”. Our research was cited as evidence in Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s ongoing lawsuit against the Trump Administration over ICE and Border Patrol arrests targeting people attending court.

Both laws are now in force. Working with community partners including the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, Washington Defenders Association, OneAmerica, and La Resistencia, we began research to monitor their implementation across the state. With the support of faculty members from multiple UW departments and campuses, our student researchers have already submitted more than 50 public records requests to more than a dozen priority counties and agencies. We look forward to officially launching this effort, the UWCHR’s “Immigrant Rights Observatory,” in the months ahead. (Read more about Tara Saleh, one of our student researchers taking a lead on this project, in a profile originally published by the UW Daily.)

ICE detainees deplane at Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field from a May 18, 2019 flight operated by Swift Air. Photo courtesy of Yakima Immigrant Response Network.

ICE detainees deplane at Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field from a May 18, 2019 flight operated by Swift Air. (Photo courtesy of Yakima Immigrant Response Network.)

ICE Air Deportation Flights

UWCHR has continued to conduct research regarding ICE’s privately-chartered, for profit deportation flight network, known as ICE Air. Following the release of our April 2019 report, “Hidden in Plain Sight: ICE Air and the Machinery of Mass Deportation,” deportation flights were halted at King County’s Boeing Field, and we are working with community groups like Yakima Immigrant Response Network, who observe and document ongoing deportation flights at Yakima’s McAllister Field, which transport people to and from the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma on a weekly basis.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought more attention to ICE’s deportation flights, which have been linked to the international spread of the virus, and transmission between immigration detention centers. The UWCHR has become a national resource for journalists, researchers, and community groups monitoring deportation flights during the pandemic, such as an April 2020 report by Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which identified hundreds of deportation flights to Latin America and the Caribbean, carried out during the pandemic.

Northwest Detention Center. (Photo: Seattle Globalist)Seattle Globalist

Northwest Detention Center conditions

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred urgent and growing concerns about the health of immigrants held in detention centers in the United States. In fact, awareness of the problem is not new: in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general raised deep questions about the agency’s preparedness for a possible pandemic event, concerns that were reiterated last December when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) denounced DHS for having medical infrastructure it described as “not sufficient to assure rapid and adequate infection control measures.”

Here in Washington, over the course of recent years, increasing activism by people detained at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) and community supporters has spurred pointed criticism by elected officials at the local, state, and national level of conditions within the facility. Sustained media attention and multiple lawsuits have also forced the facility to defend its practices. In March 2020, the Washington State Legislature passed HB 2576, a law mandating inquiries into state and local oversight mechanisms regarding conditions in the NWDC, further underscoring the perceived need to address gaps in understanding regarding the health and welfare of those housed within the facility.

In this context, in spring 2020, the UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) began sharing findings from our ongoing research into conditions at the NWDC. As part of our longstanding effort to examine the human rights implications of federal immigration enforcement in our state, UWCHR has sought, since 2017, to obtain information about conditions of detention in public and private detention facilities where immigrants are housed in Washington state. While our efforts to obtain information about conditions within the NWDC have been only partially successful due to the lack of transparency surrounding the facility, the information we have obtained is sufficiently concerning, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, that we chose to share our initial findings with the public even as our collection and analysis of further data continues. Initial reports have shared information about the human rights standards applicable to the facility, its food and laundry sanitation practices; and allegations of medical neglect; these publications are available on our website.

Pursuant to our 2019 FOIA litigation against the Department of Homeland Security, we continue to receive monthly dispatches of documents, some of which shed light on such conditions as solitary confinement, medical care and suicide attempts within the NWDC. We anticipate further publications on these topics in the months ahead.

UW undergraduate Grace Sorensen, Prof. Sol Yañez of the University of Central America "José Simeón Cañas" and David Morales, lead prosecutor for the El Mozote case, at the site of the massacre memorial in El Mozote town plaza. (Photo: Angelina Godoy)

UW undergraduate Grace Sorensen, Prof. Sol Yañez of the University of Central America “José Simeón Cañas” and David Morales, lead prosecutor for the El Mozote case, at the site of the massacre memorial in El Mozote town plaza. (Photo: Angelina Godoy)

Unfinished Sentences El Salvador

UWCHR continues its long-term partnership with survivors and human rights groups seeking justice for abuses committed during the armed conflict in El Salvador. In El Salvador, investigations and legal processes for historic war crimes are largely stalled under the administration of President Nayib Bukele, despite his previous promises to support justice efforts. One exception was the trial for the infamous El Mozote massacre, which continued to move forward in historic, though progress was slowed by the pandemic and legal maneuvers by the defense. The importance of prompt justice for the survivors of El Mozote was underscored by the deaths of four elderly witnesses in the case, as well as that of former Minister of Defense Gen. Rafael Bustillo, one of the former high-ranking military officials facing charges.

As part of our ongoing research effort, we added almost 100 new files to our freely accessible archive of declassified U.S. government documents regarding El Salvador, some of which have never before been seen publicly. The most intriguing are a set of documents from the Central America Joint Intelligence Team (CAJIT), a “fusion center” for information-sharing between the U.S. and Salvadoran militaries, which experts have long suspected could be a treasure trove of evidence for human rights investigators. One form uncovered by UWCHR researchers suggests that additional CAJIT documents contain “reports of atrocities” and transcripts of interrogations. We are currently seeking the declassification of the full CAJIT archive mentioned in the documents, as well as following-up on other requests and litigation.

Graffiti in the El Chorrillo neighborhood in Panama City reflects suppressed memories of the 1989 invasion with the slogan “Aqui pasó algo”: “Something happened here” (Photo: Maya Green)

Access to Information in Panama

Building on the experience of eight years of FOIA research via the Unfinished Sentences project, the UWCHR formed new relationships with institutions seeking to document historic injustices in Central and Latin America.

During 2019, UWCHR supported the Panama Files project, marking the 30th anniversary of the 1989 U.S. invasion which removed dictator Manuel Noriega. In partnership with the Panamanian journalists’ collective Concolón and a government commission formed to identify victims of the invasion, the UWCHR shared relevant declassified U.S. government files; and UWCHR Director Prof. Angelina Godoy and undergraduate student researcher Maya Green traveled to Panama City to participate in Concolon’s innovative Memoria Lab workshop.

Following the trip, Maya reflected, “By meeting with real people and visiting places hurt in the name of protecting American interests, the work I’m doing became grounded in reality. The Panamanians killed are not statistics to be argued over in public messaging memos: they are individuals whose families still mourn their loss every day, who can never forget the feeling of waking up to their neighborhood under attack.” During 2020-2021, Maya will act as student coordinator for UWCHR’s work for “Access to Information as a Human Right” across Central  America.