Deep within the desolate walls of the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), one of the largest immigration prisons in the nation, Miguel Angel Velazquez sat on the other side of the glass barrier as we conducted our interview.
As he started to tell me about his family, who he was forced to leave behind after being incarcerated by the immigration police, I look down only to find the words “I want my dad back” rudimentarily etched into the table on my side of the visitation phone booth.
On Saturday, the NWDC Resistance — a grassroots organization in coalition with Latino Advocacy to end the detention and deportation of immigrants — organized a people’s tribunal outside the NWDC in order to publicize human rights violations enacted upon the undocumented immigrants held inside.
The tribunal consisted of six carefully selected judges with varying qualified backgrounds: the president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia (United Families for Justice, or FUJ) Ramon Torres, UW geography professor Megan Ybarra, outreach director for Move to Amend David Cobb, UW law professor Angelica Chazaro, civil rights lawyer Junga Subedar, and director of Got Green Jill Mangaliman.
“The United States’ immigration policy is to detain and to deport,” Chazaro said. “[The NWDC] is one the facilities that is part of that politics.”
I had the privilege to venture inside the NWDC with the judges and an interpreter, Miguel Rivas-Perez, to investigate the conditions of the detention center. Maru Mora-Villalpando, the founder of Latino Advocacy and the NWDC Resistance, had organized meetings with several detained undocumented immigrants.
“I feel really miserable here,” Velazquez said. “I think a big part of it is the food, it is always soy. It makes a lot of people sick here, but it saves this place money.”
Like Velazquez, many other detainees testified to the food being the main issue in the prison. Mele Morales, an audience member previously detained in the NWDC, said inmates would often have to share what they have in order to barely meet their daily caloric needs.
“They give you very little,” Morales said. “People are starving in there, and the food is terrible. The bread tastes like soap, the beans don’t taste like beans, the chicken doesn’t taste like chicken. Not even dogs would eat that. You can feel the oppression. It is human cruelty.”
Whenever Morales lodged complaints about the facility’s conditions, he said the prison guards would make him go hungry. They would also eat their lunches outside his cell and comment on how tasty their food was, he said. Eventually, he stopped voicing his complaints.
In addition to the inadequate food, the detention center lacks sufficiency in many aspects that are vital for a prison to ensure human rights are not being violated. According to many detainees, the facility is run-down and unsanitary, the prison guards shirk many responsibilities and taunt the inmates, the wage for one day’s labor is $1, medical treatment is lacking for both mental and physical illnesses, and telephones vital for outside communication are dysfunctional.
Testimonies continued to arise from the audience, supplementing the detainees’ accounts. One formerly detained audience member, identified only as Griselda, said she was incarcerated by the immigration police only because of a previous deportation cited a decade ago.
“We’re not criminals,” she said. “We come to this country to have better lives. [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] doesn’t care if you have a family or if you’re hardworking or if you’re an active member in the community. They just care that you’re brown and that they can make money off you.”
For many years, according to Cobb, the system has been set up to exploit millions of hardworking and ameliorate immigrants.
“The detention center is not designed to protect human rights,” Cobb said. “[It is] meant to protect the profits and capitalism of the system.”
In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed a policy known as the “detention bed mandate,” which said ICE must fill all 34,000 beds across 250 facilities at all times during the day. As a result, the government detains hundreds of thousands of people in the United States each year. Policies such as this encourage the existence of immigration prisons.
Chazaro and Ybarra, along with Devon Peña, are among many active UW professors who teach courses that educate students about pressing immigration and institutional issues.
“Tribunals are really important in human rights development,” Peña said. “It really gives a voice to the voiceless people who live in disparities and pushes action toward those to be held accountable.”
Mora-Villalpando is currently working with the UW’s International Human Rights Clinic to create an international tribunal that will hopefully attract the attention of the United Nations.
“We’re going to take this [proposal] to the legislators in Olympia on Tuesday, and we are working on more projects,” Mora-Villalpando said. “We’re not gonna stop here.”
Reach reporter Yemas Ly at email@example.com. Twitter: @Yemas_Ly