Veronica Noriega’s Hunger Strike in Seattle: What it Means For Immigrants and All of Us [Cote Soerens]

Veronica Noriega’s Hunger Strike in Seattle: What it Means For Immigrants and All of Us [Cote Soerens] September 6, 2014

10177498_1411690409093367_2113146266_nThis is a guest post by Coté Soerens for the Antioch Session. Her bio is at the bottom.

Veronica Noriega is putting herself on the line for thousands of families, and this is why you should care.

Veronica Noriega is the wife of Ramon Mendoza, one of the leaders of the hunger strike that broke out last March at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, WA. This week Veronica is fasting, camping outside the NWDC in preparation for her husband’s hearing this coming Tuesday, September 9th. Why should you care?

Ramon, Veronica, and other detainees have been fasting to draw OUR attention – yes, yours and mine – to the horror of administrative detention of immigrants. Let me be clear: they do not need the attention of congress, nor the attention of the President, but our attention.

Thousands of undocumented migrants are detained indefinitely and without a right to representation at privately run jails in the US. Veronica’s husband, Ramon, is one of them detained in Tacoma. Crossing the border without papers is a civil, not a criminal offense. Detention of migrants does not serve the public interest at all, what is more, it drains our tax payer dollars in favor of a private corporation that sneaked a mandate to fill their jail beds into an appropriations bill in 2009. So this is wrong, cruel, and unnecessary from any point of view you look at it. Administrative detention of migrants is an institutionalized form of profiting from someone’s vulnerability and must stop. They get away with this by being sneaky, so Veronica and Ramon are fasting to draw OUR ATTENTION to this situation.

The key to understanding your role in all this is to explore the sneaky nature of how the excessive practice of detention of migrants came to be. Migrant detention is complex and hard to understand. But there is a reason for that—the more complex and bewildering the issue is, the easiest is for us all to not pay attention, and for private corporations like GEO to make money off undocumented migrants. This is why, in support of Veronica, Ramon, and thousands of families, I’ll do my best to break down why and how migrant detention works. My hope is that by the end of this post you will be outraged enough to want to do something to end migrant detention. I’ll try keep it simple and it will be up to you to continue your research. As we go through this, you also must know that immigration policies and migrant detention are two separate issues.

While we need comprehensive immigration reform, detention of migrants must and can end now. [Tweet This]

Ok, so, let me begin.

1. The first aspect of migrant detention is that it is administrative. That means that undocumented migrants and legal permanent residents (LPRs) who have lost their status, are detained for administrative convenience alone. They are detained while they wait for a hearing or outcome to their case. This can take anything from 2 months to 4 years… in jail…waiting for government officials to do their job… are you with me?

2. Crossing the border is a civil, not a criminal offense. It is akin to a speeding ticket. Does anyone go to jail for a speeding ticket? No. Now, because it is not a criminal offense, detainees are not protected by the 5th and 8th amendment, namely, right to a speedy process and that the punishment fits the crime (4 years waiting for a paper to be processed, remember?)

3. Detainees do not have a right to representation. That means that the only few who can afford a lawyer or are lucky enough to have pro-bono agencies help them, get good representation. The rest are left on their own to fill out their own asylum claims…in English. Have you ever seen an immigration form? Go check it out. Now imagine it is written in Russian and that your life depends on it.

All of this can be seen as government incompetency. Innocent stuff. But behold: now is where it gets truly evil.

4. Migrant detention centers are privately run. The main contractor of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), is GEO Group. GEO runs 58 detention facilities in the U.S. They also have a presence in the U.K., Australia and South Africa. GEO was started by a former FBI guy in partnership with three other former CIA’s. They sold their company but reacquired it in 2002, when the anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. was at its highest. Ever since, the number of detainees skyrocketed. GEO gets around $160 per day, per detainee from the federal government. There are 1,500 beds in the NWDC alone. GEO reported over $1.5 billion in revenue in 2013, 16% from their contract with ICE. So you see how there is no motivation to let people out of detention. This is a profitable business and many, including the Gates foundation, invest in GEO stock.

5. Now, this is good business for GEO but super expensive for the federal government. Especially because alternatives to detention cost merely ¢7 per day. Furthermore, the thousands of detainees are moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas who are gainfully employed. Not having a work permit does not prevent you from starting thriving businesses. So when you detain one of these parents, you must factor in the burden that DSHS now has to support the US Citizen children who are now on food stamps because ICE detained their gainfully employed parents to have GEO make money. Talk about “wasteful spending!” So why and how is this legal?!

6. Well, migrant detention is legally supported by congress under “the bed mandate,” which stipulates that the Department of Homeland Security “shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2014.” There is wide agreement within government agencies that the mandate is arbitrary; it does not follow actual detention needs and that incarceration is far too excessive. This mandate was introduced into the 2009 DHS appropriations bill by the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) without public comment. (He was the chair of appropriations at the time and former KKK – he is in hell, no question about it.) The bed quota has increased each year since it was first approved. Last year congressmen Deutch and Foster introduced an amendment to repeal the bed mandate but it failed to pass despite wide support by the house and the Administration.

Under the bed mandate, Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) is obliged to incarcerate migrants who do not pose a threat to public safety. As a consequence, families are torn apart. Parents, pregnant women, and children are incarcerated indefinitely in privately ran prisons putting a price tag in immigrants’ lives.

7. GEO has lobbied aggressively to maintain their power within congress. In fact they make generous contributions for the campaigns of democrats and republicans alike. Byrd himself was a beneficiary, unsurprisingly, and now you make sense of why Marco Rubio is sooo into “protecting the borders.”

It gets worst:

8. The conditions at these detention centers are below universal human standards. GEO has incurred in human rights violations within their facilities. These include, but are not limited to, sexual abuse; denial of medical care often leading to detainees’ deaths; administrative detention of pregnant women, which is specifically against the law in the U.S.; lack of information to family members regarding the location of detainees; unlawful retaliation such as solitary confinement as a punishment for detainees’ reasonable requests for standard conditions; and so on.

As a response to the demands of the hunger strikers at the NWDC, last May Rep. Adam Smith introduced the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act (H.R.4620), which addresses the concerns of the detainees and eliminates the bed quota with the statement, “the number of detention beds maintained shall be determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security and shall be based solely on detention needs.”

Eliminating the bed mandate and expanding alternatives to detention remain crucial aspects of any humane immigration reform that wants to protect vulnerable immigrants from becoming an object for profit. To this end, the role of community members is crucial. Calling our representatives demanding an end to the bed quota, and a better use of tax-payer dollars through the use of alternatives to detention, will have a deep impact in protecting men and women like Ramón and their families.

If you are in Washington State this week, please join Veronica outside the NWDC. She is there 24/7 until Tuesday, when we truly hope Ramon can go back home. 

You can follow a live stream of Veronica’s fast at the Not 1 More website:

Other resources are the Detention Watch Network:


Maria-José (Coté) Soerens, MA, is a graduate student at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, UK, where she conducts research on the religious narratives of suffering of undocumented women. As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor she works with undocumented migrants and their families in WA State providing services, advocacy, and education to the community. She organizes for the Evangelical Immigration Table, and currently teaches at the MA in Theological Studies at Centro de Estudios Teologicos Interdisicplinarios. Maria-Jose migrated from Chile and lives with her husband Tim and their son in Seattle. Website + Twitter.

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