Revolution Interview

Maru Mora Villalpando: Support the Immigrant Hunger Strikers! Stop the Deportations!

March 24, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution Interview
A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.


On March 7, 1,200 immigrant detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, began a hunger strike demanding better food, better treatment (including medical care), increased pay (from $1/day) and a stop to deportations. (See Carl Dix's statement "Detained Immigrants Launch Hunger Strike: Support Detainees Putting Their Lives on the Line" and "Immigrants on Hunger Strike: Seeking a Better Life, but 'Treated Like Animals'" in Revolution #333.) On March 15, Revolution correspondent Li Onesto talked to Maru Mora Villalpando, who is an activist and undocumented immigrant with the group Latino Advocacy and part of the #Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. She had just returned from an action in front of the detention center in support of the hunger strike. The following are excerpts from this interview.


Li Onesto: Immigrants at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma have been on a hunger strike since March 7 and I want to get an update from you on the situation there. But maybe you could start at the beginning and talk about how the hunger strike started. I understand it had something to do with an action outside the detention center on February 24, right?

Maru Mora Villalpando: Right. Back on February 24, 10 people decided to stop the deportations and we showed up at the detention center in Tacoma at 6:30 in the morning and we linked arms with PVC pipes and blocked the main entrance to the detention center. We were there calling for a stop to the detentions and joining the #Not1More Deportation campaign, a national campaign that has been going on for over a year now, taking civil disobedience actions to call on Obama to stop the deportations.

Blocking the road in front of the federal Northwest Detention Center, Tacoma, Washington, February 2014. AP photo

Maru Mora Villalpando, right, and others sit chained together blocking the road in front of the federal Northwest Detention Center, Tacoma, Washington, February 2014. AP photo

So we shut down the deportation center that day and we were there for about three hours. There were some of us blocking the streets but there were about 50 people organized in it. So we were there from 6:30 to 8:30 in the morning, we had maybe from 70 to 80. We knew that the detention center would try to deport people in different ways. So we were trying to block any kind of transportation happening that day. We knew that one bus had already tried to leave. And then a van and a third van was trying to leave and we decided to break our circle of 10. Five of us remained in the street and five went to the back street where the van was heading. One woman whose husband was being deported that day really stopped the van with her own body. By the time she was standing in front of the van, we, the five of us advanced and we blocked the street with our arms locked with PVC pipes. Then the van had to go back into the detention center. But the people waiting in the vans saw, they were able to see our action.

So based on that and because this was all over the news, the people on the inside decided, well, how do we join this movement. They thought we should be doing something around the deportations and to stop future deportations. So they organized themselves. The reason why they decided to join was because we were able to stop 120 people being deported that day.

Li Onesto: How did you determine this? That’s a lot of people.

Maru Mora Villalpando: Well, we knew that ICE had a schedule of 120 people there and we talked to people inside, lawyers that are part of that group and that’s how we confirmed that 120 people were scheduled to be deported. And the other thing that we heard was that The GEO Group, Inc., the corporation that is running the detention center, retaliated against some of those 120 people—they took away their blankets and their pillows. So that made people think, well we had nothing to do with this and they’re still retaliating against us so we actually should do something.

So it took them about a week to organize. Once they began their strike, we were told about this because they knew we were the ones that organized the February 24 action, so some of us that participated in the actions received different messages during Friday, early afternoon. For example, one of the ways that we found out—one relative of one of the organizers called the radio station and said on the air that this is happening right now. So the radio station called us and asked us to confirm this. And so then we had one of the lawyers go in and she confirmed it. She actually talked to them and got the list of demands that they wanted to give us. And so everything began on March 3.

Li Onesto: So how many people were involved in the hunger strike at the very beginning?

Maru Mora Villalpando: The paper they handed out said that 1,200 people were involved in the hunger strike.

Li Onesto: And what were their demands?

Maru Mora Villalpando: Better food, better treatment, including medical treatment. Lower commissary [prices] and access to judges—just the fact that they should be able to see a judge. And they wanted people to know about the fact that they are being paid a dollar a day for working in things like the kitchen or the laundry services or the janitorial services.

Li Onesto: There were initially 1,200 participating in the hunger strike—how many people are being held in this detention facility?

Maru Mora Villalpando: The facility has about 1,500 or 1,600 people but GEO claims that there are only 1,300 right now.

Li Onesto: So really almost all of the people in the detention center were involved at the beginning. So what happened next?

Maru Mora Villalpando: What we heard was that at first, all day Friday, they didn’t eat. Then the next day, GEO started taking down the names of the people that were not eating and the numbers. They began retaliating by intimidating them, calling them names, making fun of them, harassing them. And then when they saw this was serious, that they actually were not eating, all of them, they started doing different strategies. They pulled people out individually, supposedly to assess them medically. And instead they were being told that if they didn’t end they would be force-fed. Some of them were told that their cases that were pending would be closed and they would be deported immediately. In other instances they were just told that nobody is paying attention on the outside to this, nobody cares. Some felt the pressure and decided to stop the strike and began eating.

They continued to take individuals and they would say to some of them, you know you are the only one left. They started transporting people from place to place, there are different sections there. They kind of knew who were the main organizers and they would move them around to stop them from communicating with each other. So they would say to everybody, well, you are the only one now, you have to stop now, no one else is doing it. So that’s another way they were able to make people stop the strike. But also one of our lawyers communicated that they changed their uniforms. And instead of their regular uniforms they came in with riot gear with weapons. So that intimidated a lot of people as well. So at some point they were all transferred and isolated. We heard a case where more than 20 people were sent to isolation, in a very dark and small room and they were not able to communicate with anybody. People started getting really worried. We heard stories that people that were still striking, GEO would come and take them to a different section and they didn’t know, they weren’t told you’re going to be transferred, they would just take them. And then GEO agents would come back and just grab their things and take them. People were afraid about what was happening to them. At some point we didn’t know how many people were still striking because they couldn’t talk to each other. They revoked their privilege of watching TV or listening to the radio so they couldn’t know what was going on outside.

We were only able to talk to three people who were doing the strike through one of the wives. From Saturday last week, she was able to communicate with us directly. So she was a direct communication with the strike and we were able to get that communication going. We had a lawyer going in. Those three as of today are still on a hunger strike.

Li Onesto: So people are very isolated from each other, not able to talk with each other, they are in individual cells?

Maru Mora Villalpando: They usually are not in individual cells. They are actually in big rooms called pods. But what they do is they don’t allow people to talk to each other. If they see three people are gathering agents will come and stand right next to them so they wouldn’t be able to talk to each other. So because the space is open they [guards] go in and quietly observe but also listen to them talking to each other. So the way they have handled the situation, it’s really difficult for them to talk to each other and organize anything.

So today, we were there from 12 to 5 pm and we were able to talk to about 10 people. And out of those 10 people that were coming in to visit their relatives we heard there are six of these relatives that are still on strike. They either have been on the strike, or they were on strike then stopped and are coming back, or they are starting. Because some of them were able to get communications through their families that this is actually working, that what they did is historic, that this is international news and so they decided to join again. So that’s just six direct cases. And we heard through another person that just met with her relative that in his unit there were at least four people also on the hunger strike. So just today, for just a couple of hours, we heard of 10 more cases, besides the three that have been constantly on strike since March 7.

Li Onesto: What about the threats of force-feeding?

Maru Mora Villalpando: The three that have been on strike since March 7 were isolated sometime this week. They were sent to a place they call the tank and it’s a big room where it was only the three of them. The only thing they have there was a phone, so one of the main strikers communicated with his wife and that’s how we have been getting lots of information. They were threatened with force-feeding. So we were in conversation with the American Civil Liberties Union. And so they went in, they got permission to represent them and they communicated with the attorney of the USA to make sure that if ICE is moving to serve a court order to force-feed them then the ACLU is going to go in to represent them as their clients. So that is the way we have been able to stop the force-feeding for now. But that is not going to stop ICE from trying to get the federal government to allow them to do that.

Li Onesto: What about the health of the strikers, in terms of getting doctors to examine them to see how they are doing?

Maru Mora Villalpando: Now since yesterday the three strikers were moved into a medical facility and so they are in different rooms from each other so they cannot talk to each other, they are in individual rooms now. So they are under medical assessment, they are just there and the medics that are coming in are ones from GEO Incorporated. And today one detainee’s wife was able to go in and see him and one of the other strikers lost more than 20 pounds and his wife said he lost 20 pounds. Their relatives said that both of them they are definitely continuing with the strike until their demands are met for better treatment, better food, lower commissary—but most importantly stopping the deportations and allowing all these families to be reunited again.

Li Onesto: I understand there have been other hunger strikes in other immigrant detention centers around the country.

Maru Mora Villalpando: There have been several across the country for many, many years including a recent one where about 15 decided to go on a hunger strike. Even here in Tacoma, Washington, some years back, people decided because the food was so terrible, it was spoiled, they decided to stop eating. Another time 150 people here in Tacoma, Washington complained that they had been working for a month and were not paid. Also there was an instance in California of people going on a hunger strike. But this is the first time that they were able to organize such a huge number to go on a hunger strike, so this is what makes this so unique. So this is really historic.

Li Onesto: So this is the largest one so far.

Maru Mora Villalpando: It is, and I don’t think it’s going to be the last one.

Li Onesto: Could you also talk about civil disobedience actions that have taken place, like on the border, to protest the treatment of immigrants and the deportations—which now, under Obama, is approaching 2 million?

Maru Mora Villalpando: In general, people have been so disappointed in so many promises. Disappointed with the fact that there is supposed to be relief for families that have been separated. That knowing what happened with the Senate bill last year in Congress, that was not immigration reform, we believe that was an immigration “deform bill” because they pretty much continued this big machine of deportation. That bill would not have a path to citizenship for all of us and if there was some it would be for only a few. And if that kind of bill had ever become law we would have many complications for workers of all kinds and it would have legalized the slavery of our labor. So that is why so many people decided to go and take civil disobedience actions and those actions have taken different shapes. But most of the ones that have happened on the border, which actually just happened also this time in coincidence with the hunger strike in an effort to reunite families and bring people back so the campaign is to bring them home. But for those who have actually been deported they have tried to bring people across the border to be reunited with their families. And obviously at a national level we are calling for a national day of action on April 5 that marks the 2 million deported.

Our kids are being separated from their parents. If you were able to see kids that come to see their parents. They are just broken, they are completely broken. They just want to see their dad, they just want to be with them. We heard so many stories today, they just break your heart.

Li Onesto: Could you tell a couple of those stories?

Maru Mora Villalpando: For example, we were there and we were asking people could you give us the information of your loved ones so we can go and visit them. Somebody said, yes, his birthday is March 15—today. So that’s his birthday and the kids came with mom to see their dad in prison. This is a prison, this is for a civil proceeding but it’s a prison. So they come to say happy birthday to their dad in this prison system where it’s just a civil proceeding. These kids, they were crying when they were describing the situation and I’m talking about teenagers and teenagers don’t like to show their emotions but they couldn’t stop crying when mom was sharing this with us.

The other story I can tell you right now is this one husband and wife. She is the one that has been calling me every day since this began. She has to work now three jobs. They have three children, 13, 11, and 5 years old. He is a carpenter and he volunteers every year for a once a year event that goes to the houses of people with disabilities and they build ramps for them so they can have easier access to their homes. And now she has to work these three jobs and she is not able to come out all the time because she’s working. She decided to join her husband in the hunger strike, she’s there all the time, the three kids come with her every time. And also the teenager just breaks every time, he’s just crying. The younger one doesn’t really know what’s going on but just knows that she wants to see her dad.

Li Onesto: The other thing I wanted you to talk about is Operation Streamline. Maybe you could describe that a little for some of our readers who might not know what it is and the significance of it. Because it is different than how the U.S. government has handled things with regards to deportations in the past—an increase in the repression against immigrants. And there has also been resistance to Operation Streamline, right?

Maru Mora Villalpando: Right. So with Operation Streamline, the process is when people cross the border without a permit and they are taken by the Border Patrol, they are immediately processed before a federal judge. People have been also deported before and they are trying to get into the country again, what they call that is illegal re-entry. And that, under the past administration was made a way to stop people from reuniting with their families. And so it’s a federal crime under the current law to re-entry after you have been deported, regardless of [if] you are trying to reunite with your family.

What happens is that the Border Patrol has this system where they get as many people as possible sent to a federal judge to have an immediate hearing. But that’s not really a hearing. It’s a very expedited thing where people are found guilty. But they are not returned to their country immediately, they actually are sentenced to jail, to a local jail. Then they have to spend time there for some months and then after that they are sent back to their country of origin. Now, one of the actions that happened last year to make sure that people know about this is that the people that are part of the campaign decided to shut down Operation Streamline. And so they blocked one of the buses that was ready to leave and they actually locked arms underneath the bus. So they had their arms locked around the tires. And there are so many hours only that the border patrol have from the time they catch people to the time they have to have a hearing before a federal judge. So if that time passes and they aren’t able to send them, then they have to release them. If they don’t go before a judge in this many hours, then they have to release them to Mexico at the location they were coming from. So this was actually the time that they stopped the bus—the hours to ensure that instead of being sent to the judge they would be sent back over the Mexican border. So that’s what they had to do.

Li Onesto: How long were they blocking the buses?

Maru Mora Villalpando: It was for several hours that they were able to stop the bus. So when that time had already expired they have to release people. The people that organized the action knew it so they knew exactly when they had to be released and the Border Patrol had to release them and that’s how they proclaimed victory. They were able to stop Operation Streamline that day.

Li Onesto: Just to be clear, the significance of Operation Streamline is that before they would stop people at the border and send them back. But now they are quickly putting them before a judge, finding them guilty and having them serve time, which means they are convicted of a felony—which means they have a record and so if they come back across the border, what does that mean in terms of the repercussions for that person?

Maru Mora Villalpando: Well, like I said, illegal re-entry becomes a federal crime and the person has to serve many months, if not years in some instances, in a federal prison.

Li Onesto: I see the statistic here that over 50% of all federal felony convictions are now for immigration violations. That’s an astounding statistic actually.

Maru Mora Villalpando: It is. There was also the interview of an immigration judge about Operation Streamline where she very proudly gave a number, which I don’t remember the exact number. But she was really proud to say how fast she placed people in the system of the federal prison. She doesn’t really even see people, she just calls the name and pretty much just convicts them, and she was very proud of her record of so many immigrants per minute.

Li Onesto: Oh yes, I see an article here where a judge says “my record is 30 minutes” to hear 70 cases.

Maru Mora Villalpando: That’s right. The government should be so ashamed of making people’s life not only so miserable—but making these judges so proud of being part of this system. It’s just outrageous. Maybe finally the public in general will realize this is so wrong, this is so wrong. And that’s why this hunger strike has touched everywhere people’s interest. So now it’s an international issue. We actually got calls from Canada because over there they’re also doing the same. There are some people in immigration detention in Canada that have also gone on a hunger strike. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from other countries and obviously from other detention centers across this nation, that in general in the world right now, they are not only making profits from our labor—because they only pay us not so much for working in the fields or cleaning houses, but they are also profiting from our imprisonment.

When I was talking to this one mom out at the detention center, she said, you know how I feel? I feel that they had stole my son from him and now they are selling him back to me. And this is not right, he’s my son, he’s not for sale. This is what’s happening in this country and really around the world.

Li Onesto: This is really stealing the humanity of people. I guess the last question I would ask you is what do you think people can and should do to support the hunger strike in Tacoma?

Maru Mora Villalpando: There are several ways to support this. One is we have an online petition. We need people to put pressure on ICE, not only to meet their demands, but basically to investigate GEO for the conditions that they have people in, but also to release them. We need to stop the deportations right now, that’s it. If people want to support them, ask for the release of everybody in the detention centers across the nation.

Li Onesto: That’s the biggest demand.

Maru Mora Villalpando: The other thing is we want people to do is solidarity actions in each of their cities. They can come here to Tacoma, if they could that would be great. But if they cannot, please take solidarity actions in your areas, show support across the nation to them. And also to the people who are in detention in your own cities find ways to prevent the deportations. Because this is the thing, they are very isolated. Like here in Tacoma, the detention center was built in a place that is very isolated. People here didn’t know that it existed. So go find the different locations where people are being imprisoned just because of immigration civil violations. And go and show support, talk to the families, bring a banner saying stop deportations, stop making profit our of our misery, out of the separation of families. And let us know, we need to show that this is the larger movement, this is not only Tacoma, this is really the whole nation calling for an end to the deportations.

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