Starting in spring of 2022 and through the summer, I worked on the Migrant Redress Initiative: Freedom and Dignity project with Alejandra Gonza, Executive Director of Global Rights Advocacy (GRA), in collaboration with La Resistencia. The Redress Initiative is a project that empowers immigrants to reach international justice by bridging the voices of the most oppressed members of the undocumented community with the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. This project raises awareness around human rights abuses at the civil prison, the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC), by following the vision of our immigrant community for rethinking redress as people tell their stories about life before detention, as well as reimagining immigration without cages in the State of Washington.
Through the Abe Osheroff and Gunnel Clark Endowed Fund, the UW Center for Human Rights has supported these efforts to bring voices from the detention center to the UN and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and to raise community awareness.
The NWIPC is one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the U.S. It is currently owned and operated by GEO Group, a private corporation contracting with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to provide detention facilities. Only recently has the detention center allowed visitors for the first time after two years, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I made several visits to the NWIPC to gather first-hand information from people currently detained through interviews to document human rights violations and share their stories with the community. We also gathered testimonies from formerly detained people and their family members. In total, with GRA, we collected twenty testimonies—twenty stories that are a testament to the pain that private for-profit detention centers cause.
The people detained described their experiences and fears inside the NWIPC, such as solitary confinement, medical neglect, hunger strikes, and unsanitary conditions. Likewise, the families of the detained people described their struggles and suffering in managing life without their loved ones. Additionally, and complicating the situation through 2020-2022, the COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially increased the risks of living in detention and discontinued family visits for two years.
Retrieving direct testimonies helped design a multilayered advocacy plan. We used the information gathered in our interviews to draft affidavits that could be submitted as evidence in our litigation before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the United Nations, to document the patterns of human rights violations happening at the NWIPC, and to craft legal arguments. Our advocacy plan also goes beyond these international venues and entails efforts to share different realities to stop injustices by using art to tell stories we collected and sharing that art with local Pacific Northwest communities.
The Abe Osheroff and Gunnel Clark Fund supported efforts to create an exposition that will exhibit the twenty stories of people affected by the detention center. Each of the testimonies has been transformed into an illustration that tells their story. It is complemented with a small text focusing on the storyteller’s desire to find redress and family reunification. The Wing Luke Museum has opened a space for these stories to be shared in an exhibition that will be displayed for one year in the museum starting on October 15, 2022.
For-profit detention centers use humans as commodities with cruel, unnecessary, and prolonged immigration detention, separating families and making it practically impossible for individuals to fight their cases for legal status in the United States. In 2021, Jay Inslee, governor of Washington state, signed bill 1090, barring the use of “private, for-profit detention facilities” starting in 2025. Unfortunately, on September 26, 2022, the Ninth Circuit struck down a similar law aiming to phase out private immigration detention in California.
While working on this project, I noticed that many people are unaware of what is happening at the NWIPC and are shocked to learn about it. Because of that, our advocacy work is crucial. I hope people will visit the exhibition and that it will help to end these outrageous practices caused by unchecked corporate power.