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Unitarian Universalists struggle for justice at Northwest Detention Center

March 20 vigil outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma — Day 14 of the hunger strike.
March 20 vigil outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma — Day 14 of the hunger strike.
Yessenia Renee Medrano

The struggle for human rights at the Northwest Detention Center, a for-profit immigration prison in Tacoma, Washington, began years before detainees launched a hunger strike on March 7 to protest their living conditions and U.S. immigration policy.

Activists have been holding vigils outside the detention facility since shortly after it opened in 2004 on the Tacoma Tideflats. Members of the Tacoma Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship, and the Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church hold vigils in collaboration with other groups outside the detention center on Saturdays.

Jolinda Stephens, coordinator at Washington Unitarian Universalist Voices for Justice, has been on the front lines of the struggle for immigrant rights since the Arizona SB 1070 protests of July 2010, when she was arrested with 60 other protesters in a civil disobedience action in Phoenix.

When Stephens moved to Tacoma last year, she got involved with the Northwest Detention Center Roundtable, made up of people from churches, social service agencies, the Northwest Immigration Rights Project, GEO Group — which owns and operates the Northwest Detention Center — and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Stephens also joined the visitation program at the detention facility, which had been started by Unitarian Universalists. "If you really want to advocate for someone, you need to get to know them to be able to know what you're talking about," she said.

She found visitation program rewarding but also very frustrating. "It was permeated with tension and paranoia, and so many rules," she said. "They're afraid that if they do anything wrong, or say anything that angers either GEO or ICE, they won't have access any more."

Most difficult was the ban on sharing information about the detainees with anyone on the outside. "Your story as an immigrant is probably your most powerful weapon," Stephens said. "But there was no way to get their stories out. We were forbidden to talk about the stories at all, even in general terms. We couldn't go in with pens or paper. Talking about conversations with detainees on the outside would get you banned from visitation."

It was clear to Stephens and others that playing by the detention center's rules wasn't going to accomplish very much. In February, four organizers — immigration attorney Sandy Restrepo, law professor Angelica Chazaro, community organizer Cariño Barragan, and political strategist Maru Mora Villalpando— formulated a plan to block deportation buses from leaving the detention facility. On the morning of February 24, about 50 protesters attempted to turn back a bus and two vans loaded with detainees.

"We were successful," Stephens said. "We stopped 120 people from being deported for a whole week." The action drew a lot of press coverage, much of it positive. "The detention center exists on a Superfund site where nobody goes," she said. "It's pretty invisible, and one of our goals was to make it very visible."

Before the protesters' next planning meeting, they got word that the detainees had decided to go on hunger strike. When the strike began, Restrepo, Chazaro, Barragan, and Villalpando organized daily vigils outside the detention center.

"We've done a fair amount of social work, standing outside the facility and talking with people as they go inside to visit loved ones, and talking with them as they come out," Stephens said. "A lot of people have had specific needs, some of which we were able to meet."

They also started gathering stories from visitors about their detained loved ones, and the impact their incarceration has had on their families. Stephens said that they intend to make this information public in some form. "When people who are not directly affected try to do something independently, it never can be effective," she said. "You have to do it in coordination with the people who are directly affected."

The hunger strikers are not organized by anyone outside the detention facility, Stephens said. "Communities of resistance that are most effective are the ones that organize themselves."

One of the organizers, detained U.S. Army veteran Hassall Moses, was placed in solitary confinement for trying to organize a work stoppage in addition to the hunger strike.

GEO and ICE "are really, really angry at us, because they can only continue what they're doing in people's ignorance," Stephens said.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) is organizing a national day of action against deportations on Saturday, April 5. Solidarity actions are planned in Tacoma and about 70 other U.S. cities.

NDLON has also organized a petition on behalf of detained hunger strikers in Tacoma and Conroe, Texas.

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