As of last week, 31% of the current population in the Florence I.C.E. Detention Center are criminals, meaning they have been previously convicted of a crime, while 69% of the general population are non-criminals. Non-criminals, meaning they have no criminal record, but have been apprehended by the local police, Border Patrol, or I.C.E. as people living in this country without papers. It is not a crime to be in violation of immigration laws; it is a strictly civil violation. Immigrants have to go through a civil legal process to see if they have the right to stay in the United States or not. Instead of letting people stay at home and work while they are going through this legal process, detention centers are making huge profits off of detaining immigrants. The Florence Project, a non-profit legal aid organization that provides assistance to detainees, reports that the average cost of detaining an immigrant is $99 per person a day, while alternatives to detention, including reporting and electronic monitoring, are effective, yielding a 93% court appearance rate, and cheaper, at an average of $12 a day. Only thirty percent of the people in this detention center have committed crimes deemed “dangerous to society”, but the rhetoric of the detention center is that everyone in the facility is dangerous and that their primary function is keeping our streets safe through detention. Our guide kept saying that detention centers are not punitive, meaning not for punishment; they are strictly for administrative purposes. However, he later said that he is proud of his job and that he sleeps better at night because he is protecting the community, his family, our families, from the criminal element of society. This rhetoric of security against the criminal enhances the idea of immigrants as “other”, as not worthy of basic human rights or of access to the benefits of living in America.
At the I.C.E. facility, detainees are paid a dollar a day to work a shift in the kitchen or the Laundromat or elsewhere within the facility. This work was phrased as beneficial to the detainees because it gives them additional job skills. Do we really think that someone is going to list wiping tables at a detention center while being incarcerated on an application for employment? This is one of the newer rungs in the horrible history of forced and enslaved labor in the United States. The detention center is receiving practically free labor from non-criminals who could be working minimum wage jobs while going through their civil, not criminal, proceedings. When we walked into the Laundromat, there was music playing. The security guard standing by the door casually joked to us that the music “makes them work faster”, attributing the allowance of music to an industrial praise of efficiency.
“Care, custody, and control” was the motto of the employees of the I.C.E. Detention Facility. They control detainees by color-coding them by criminal status. Lime-green uniforms mean that they are located in the staging facility and have not yet been processed, blue means non-criminal or low classification, orange indicates a medium-low or medium-high threat or degree of criminality, and red is high criminality. This color-coding occurs all over the country and is being taken to new heights. A recent article on NPR explained that “Officials at at least five state institutions have been using a color-coding system to keep track of their inmates by race: black inmates get blue signs placed above their cell doors, while white inmates get white signs, Latino inmates are designated by red, green or pink signs, and everyone else is yellow. Their logic works like this: if a group of Latino inmates fights with a white inmate, the prison would place all of the Latinos on lockdown.” Racism is ruling the functioning of our prison systems in the United States.
One thing that became clear to all of us was the bureaucratic distinction (albeit a blurry distinction in terms of treatment and intent) of the differences between a detention center, jail, and a prison. We were told that a detention center has a purely administrative, not punitive function, that a jail serves to hold people pending prosecution for a criminal charge, and that prisons house people once they are convicted of a crime. Florence alone houses the I.C.E. Detention Center, the CCA (Corporate Corrections of America) Detention Center, and the Pinal County Jail. Conteras mentioned that the function of the tour he was giving us was to dispel the ideas that the media sometimes exudes about prisons: that they are horrendous facilities in which torture and harassment lurks in every shadow. Our amiable tour guide’s goal was to show us that the detainees were being treated as humans, with top of the line food, recreation time, and access to legal rights. The treatment at the I.C.E. detention center did seem better than I had anticipated; however, we were later informed by a social worker with an organization that offers detained immigrants legal aid, that the Florence I.C.E. Detention Center is I.C.E.’s shining jewel in terms of treatment. In other words, when we toured the detention center, we saw the top-of-the line. Cindy told us that conditions are much, much worse at the Pinal County Jail. Regardless of the numerous amenities that the I.C.E. detention center is providing, the detainees at one of the supposed best facilities in the country are still being treated as animals, as the bottom tier in a human caste system.
The words that were used continually on our tour portrayed the detainees as animals to be taken care of and controlled. At one point, our tour guide announced that we were moving on to view the dining hall facilities and he warned, “They may be feeding right now.” Feeding? Really? Do you believe that you are the warden of animals whose only needs are nourishment by glucose and protein, sleep, and shelter? Humans, humans, have emotional, mental, and sentimental needs. Humans have survived through all kinds of impossible journeys because of the strength of their mind and their willpower. Humans thrive on ideas and creativity. Prisons treat humans like animals, and intentionally so, because their goal is not rehabilitation of people; their goal is detainment of people who exist outside of and challenge the normative sphere of US society.
My view of borders, sovereignty, life and death was further complicated after meeting with a local human rights organization. The person we met with was from the Tohono O’Odham nation and has developed sharp criticisms of the tribal government’s response to the astonishing number of deaths within the nation’s boundaries. In the fiscal year of 2010, 253 undocumented migrant deaths were recorded by Border Patrol. An average of 50% of undocumented deaths in the Tucson sector occur within the limits of the Tohono O’odham Nation. I hope that this is illustrative of the atrocity happening in the Tohono O’odham Nation (and of course, greater Tucson sector).
Tackling such immense problems is clearly on the agenda. However, deaths will not wait for the abolition of structural violence. What do we do given today’s circumstance? I would offer beginning a network of communication between activists outside and inside the Tohono O’odham nation to begin addressing the myriad of issues that have caused the inaction. I would utilize activists such the person we spoke with who are both a part of the Tohono O’odham and greater Tucson sector community to express the need for action.
Today, we walked to a human rights organization in downtown Tucson that advocates for border and immigrant communities. Their Policy Director is a Tohono O´odham and activist who advocates that everyone can contribute to ending human suffering on the border. If people know that others are dying in their backyard, they have a moral obligation to prevent these deaths.
The person we spoke with became an activist after acknowledging that around 50% of immigrant deaths occurred on the Tohono Nation, according maps of migrant deaths in the Sonoran desert created by a local humanitarian aid group. He asserts that, sadly, the vast number of immigrants dying make immigrant death seem natural. When people start seeing migrant death as a natural process, people do not do anything to prevent it. Before working for the organization we visited, our host was a Presbyterian minister on the Tohono O’odham Nation. During this time, he became frustrated when people from the community´s Church were not doing anything to prevent deaths happening around 5 miles away from their community. When he tried to challenge them, they, especially the elders, replied asking “why would you help people who are doing illegal activities, people who are criminals?” Our host replied “yes, legally immigrants without documents are breaking the law and because of this, you can argue they are doing a criminal activity. However, we have to accept this even if we do not like it and move on, the point is that people are dying outside.” Then he asked the elders “what is more important? A migration law or a moral law?” He tried to convince them by saying that we should all try to meet the moral and the law arguments in the middle to prevent more human suffering.
After this, the speaker learned that, the same as the Government of Tohono Nation and the U.S. government, the people in his Church wanted to stay in the “safe position.” Then, he became and an O´odham activist by leaving water for immigrants crossing through the Nation´s territory as well as working with local organizations to fight for immigrant´s rights. He argues that his job as an activist stays faithful to culture, roots and O´odham´s tradition of hospitality and moral code. Unfortunately, the Government of the Tohono Nation complains about his work since they argue that the numbers of people dying in O’odham territory are exaggerated in many reports and that leaving water encourages people to use the Nation’s territory as a migration route. He says that the Nation police often confiscate the gallons of water he leaves in this territory. He used to have 4 water stations, 100 gallons each and all of them were confiscated.
In October 21, 2011, the newspaper of the Tohono Nation, The Runner, Volume 18, Number 20, published an article in which the Nation Police and Pima County Council proved the percentage of immigrants´ deaths occurring within the Nation Territory. In this edition Sargent May says that “sometimes we have four to five (deaths) a week. Last year in 2010 there were a total of 125 immigrant deaths, and 63 of those were recorded in July.” Our speaker currently uses this article to defend himself of being accused of defamation.
Our speaker acknowledges that the construction of the border wall was intentionally to move migration patterns to the Western desert, in the mountains and harsher climate conditions thinking these will reduce migrants crossing. However, as a result of this, the number of deaths increased. Even though, the Tohono Nation obtains money from the US Government, our host thinks that the Nation Council is afraid of risking that money by resisting the Border Patrol policies. He asked “if we hold Border Patrol for the deaths of immigrants, shouldn´t we also hold people in the O´odham Nation Government for not doing anything?” He also expressed his anger at other local humanitarian aid organizations for refusing to put water inside the O´odham Nation claiming that they do not want to break the tribe´s laws. And he asked how it is possible that one group calls themselves humanitarians but they allow the Nation to break moral laws? He called this moral hypocrisy. He also spoke about how easy it is for people to talk about the number of deaths without acknowledging that they are talking about people, people with families, people suffering, trying to cross the desert.
When one of our classmates asked him how different violations of the Tribe´s laws and territories is modern colonization, he replied that this kind of concerns is part of “White Society Burdens” when some people focus too much on the things that have passed in the past and they do not allow themselves to act in the present. He said that it is important to acknowledge how Tohono O’odham territory is being occupied and destroyed and it is still not respected by the US government, however, this gives us no reason to avoid preventing deaths.
And so! Me, as María Ramos, Earlham College student, student at BSP 2013, Spring semester, would like to ask, taking into consideration how privileged we are that we can even consider this question, is it valid argument to do not do anything to prevent human suffering in order to respect the boundaries of religious/cultures/nations spaces?
Mexican American Studies existed peacefully for almost a decade, and Denise shared with us the warm memories and crucial insights that she attributes to her time in MAS. MAS was a series of classes that gave teachers an opportunity to communicate diverse perspectives on history and literature, as well as engage students in the process and discourse of social change and community involvement. She explained that the classes themselves were formatted to be particularly inclusive and stimulating, with everyone sitting in family-style circles. Some of the MAS classes opened with a poem by Luis Valdez. The poem is called “In Lak’ech,” a Mayan phrase that is best translated to “You are my other me”. Students read books such as…
Through these lessons, Denise explained that she began to develop an analysis of systemic inequality that was pivotal for her and still propels her organizing today. She recalled specifically the realization that low-income students of color were being set up to fail. While their career fair was an opportunity to enroll in the military, wealthier students’ fairs were full of recruiters from prestigious colleges, even Harvard. Segregation in Tucson became conspicuous and unacceptable for MAS students. In addition to the program being a catalyst for analysis, it was also an enormous success in narrowing the achievement gap for underserved Chicano youth. According to district’s records, students in the program had higher test scores and graduated at nearly 90 percent rates. Gabe, a Chicano-Jewish student organizer, was not a participant in MAS. He spoke to us about his own upbringing in a mixed household, and his learned distaste for speaking Spanish. He expressed that this self-loathing process, referred to as indigenization, is widespread and powerful in Chicano and Latino youth. Gabe wishes that he had learned the love and respect for his culture that MAS encouraged, and sees much merit in the program for this reason.
Gabe and Denise traced the attack on Ethnic Studies back to 2006 when United Farm Workers organizer, Dolores Huerta, visited Tucson High School as a guest lecturer and made a comment about republicans “hating Latinos”. Tom Horne, then the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, was outraged. He sent a Latina employee to the high school to correct this grave misrepresentation. The students, silenced and offended by his cheap rebuttal, objected. During her address a group of MAS students silently raised their fists in protest, and eventually walked out.
This interaction sparked widespread condemnation and fear of the program amongst various Arizona legislatures and social conservatives. The program was accused of inciting the overthrow of the United States government, and breeding hostile forms of ethnic solidarity. Out of this paranoia, HB2281 (officially signed as ARS 15-112) was born. The policy was crafted on a state level, signed by Jan Brewer, and prohibited any curriculum that was designed for a particular ethnic group or encouraged ethnic solidarity or resentment. John Huppenthal, the current Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, had the MAS program reviewed under this new legislature. He had run for office on a platform of “stopping La Raza”, and had every intention of keeping this promise. Unfortunately, after lengthy review, his auditors did not find MAS to be out of compliance with ARS 15-112. The program was outlawed regardless.
In April 2011, the school board, in an attempt to comply with RS 15-112, was planning to vote to relegate the MAS core curriculum into electives. Gabe and Denise describe this moment as pivotal in their organizing. Just before the meeting started, nine young people stormed the boardroom. Struggling with security guards, the students successfully chained themselves to the boardmembers’ chairs and began to chant, “Our education is under attack—what do wedo? We fight back!” A gathering of supporters filled the boardroom, thesidewalk and both traffic lanes of the street outside. Denise recalls that this was the first time the students were really listened to. They demanded attention and the right to defend the programs they loved.
Denise and Gabe were kind enough to share with us their “Declaration of Intellectual Warriors”, a proposal they fashioned in partnership with allying groups, and are submitting in response to the TUSD Unitary Status Plan. The Unitary Status Plan was proposed to bring an end to the longstanding school desegregation case, Fisher, et al., Mendoza, et al. v. TUSD, CV 74-90 TUC DCB. The plan strives to provide equal educational opportunities to African American and Latino students, without the direct reinstitution of MAS. Denise and Gabe expressed concern that while these reforms would establish curriculum covering a range of histories and struggles, it was staunchly standardized, and would not enliven students in the same manner as the MAS program. The pedagogy had been oppressed, they joked.
Their demands include:
UNIDOS is fighting constantly to protect and expand EthnicStudies. They envision education that promotes diversity, justice, and equity, and they choose to frame education as a human right. They believe that truly relevant curriculum sheds light on the pervasive inequities within education, and stimulates social change. As a participant in the Border Studies Program I am honored to speak and work with these devoted and powerful young people.
Now, however, teachers can’t ask those hard questions. They are being censored. While never truly abandoning their principles—“I will always teach critical thinking”—many now feel they must stick to teaching things that are safe. Before the ban, one of the activities they did in class was to show a documentary about experiences of cultural genocide among Native Americans in the US, and then reflect with the class on culture and what it means to have ones culture taken away with force. Now TUSD teachers must be more subtle, because this “subversive” information is considered anti-American, and is given no place in the classroom.
When sharing their classroom experience their frustration was tangible to me. The two of them are clearly bubbling over with energy for education, with enthusiasm to work with young people and help them become the best that they can be. Yet their energy, yet undying, is not valued by those in control of Tucson’s system of education. They are tired. They are let down. They are sickened.
And yet. Despite being confronted with racism and a complete disregard for the futures of incredibly intelligent and creative young people, they are not cynical. As one said at the conclusion of their presentation: “I don’t lose hope in human beings. If I did I wouldn’t be teaching.”