By E.J. Esperanza
[Note: The following message was sent by E.J. Esperanza to the October 10, 2020 Binational Conference Against NAFTA, the Wall of Shame, and For Labor Rights for All. Esperanza, an undocumented lawyer and immigrant rights activist, was not able to attend the conference for reasons he explains below.]
I am sorry that I will not be able to join you at the Binational Conference. Together with other immigrant rights activists, I am currently at an ICE detention center in the town of Adelanto, in California’s San Bernardino County. We are here to demand that the governor and state authorities shut down the Adelanto ICE detention center and all other for-profit detention centers — all of which have become death camps for the detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As you may know, ICE contracts with private prison companies, such as GEO Group, Inc. and CoreCivic, to operate the majority of its large network of facilities. All have witnessed a huge outbreak of COVID-19 because of the lack of proper protective equipment, the cramped quarters, the unsanitary conditions, and the lack of adequate healthcare.
In response to the spread of COVID-19 throughout the detention centers, hundreds of immigrants have gone on hunger strike across the country. From Northern California, Central California, Southern California, to Colorado, to Louisiana, an unprecedented wave of hunger strikes has swept the country, largely ignored by the media. Prisoners in Adelanto and other facilities have been striking continuously for their freedom and for their very lives.
Activists up and down the state of California, and beyond, are crying out, “How many more people in ICE detention have to die or get infected before these death camps are shut down?” They are demanding: “FREE THEM ALL!”
Democratic Party: Not a Lesser Evil
At the Mesa Verde Detention facility in Bakersfield, Calif., hunger strikers sent an Open Letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra demanding that they inspect the detention facilities and oversee the standards of care. These Democratic Party officials, however, have refused to take such action.
The immigrant community is very clear about the real threat presented by the Trump administration. We’ve spent every waking hour fighting it. But there is a growing awareness in the leadership of the immigrant rights movement that the Democrats are no “lesser evil.” This is an assessment borne out by experience and 15 years of struggle against Democrats and Republicans alike.
Despite all the rhetoric and crocodile tears over the missing children who were separated from their parents, the Democratic Party has refused to hold the immigrant detention centers accountable. They have refused to stop GEO’s expansion. They have sided with the for-profit detention centers.
This is no accident. The Trump administration did not create the deportation regime under which we are living today. His administration has merely enforced existing laws drafted and signed into law by the Clinton administration, in the infamous Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. These laws gave unprecedented power to the federal government to militarize the border, criminalize immigrants, and detain and deport families on a mass and unprecedented scale.
The sophisticated machinery that leveraged for-profit detention centers and state-of-the-art surveillance technology was the work of the Obama and Biden administration, and their administration alone. Its aim has been to militarize the border and establish a deportation militia under ICE capable of commandeering every local law enforcement agency in the country, every database, to identify, track, detain, and deport immigrants on a mass scale.
Obama and Biden deported nearly 3 million immigrants in eight years, deporting on average nearly 400,000 immigrants a year. Trump has deported far fewer. The infamous detention of children at the border is also a policy that began under Obama and Biden, back in 2014, which received much less attention than Trump’s policy.
Independent Mass Action
During COVID-19, the immigrant rights movement has secured victories precisely by opposing and mobilizing independently of the Democrats in California, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, and beyond. Over 10,000 immigrants have secured releases due to this growing movement in the last several months. Everywhere a powerful movement is being forged to demand Papeles Para Todos / Papers for All! — No Detentions and Deportations! — No More “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”!
Places where the immigrant community had previously been unorganized – like the Central Valley in California, rural regions in Louisiana, Vermont, and Texas – have seen important battles taking on private detention centers and the Democrats alike.
In these localities, local Democrats have time and again sided with the private detention centers, posing the need for immigrants to run their own candidates locally in a way never seen before. In rural places like McFarland, Bakersfield, and Adelanto in California, and Williamson County in Texas, the question of an independent working-class party has been urgently presented by the limitations of the Democratic politicians that sit in power locally. It’s in places like these where the conditions to run independent labor and community candidates are ripening.
So as we fight to liberate our people from detention centers, the question of independent working-class politics is posed to the immigrant rights movement.
I look forward to working with all of you across borders to tear down the Wall of Shame, free all the prisoners from the ICE detention centers, and repeal NAFTA 2.0
Thank you, and best wishes for a successful conference.