Florence Detention Center

With the horrific realities of Operation Streamline still etched in our minds, our group witnessed yet another manifestation of immigrant criminalization and commodification this past Friday. After a 90-minute drive north from Tucson, we arrived at the fenced-in complex of Florence Detention Center in the rural community of Florence, AZ. Roughly half of the town’s 17,000 inhabitants are confined within its 12 correctional facilities (split between federal, state, county, and private ownership), and this prison economy keeps much of the remaining population employed. Florence has a long history as a prison town – the Florence Detention Center originally incarcerated German and Italian prisoners of war during World War II. Now operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the remodeled facility holds male undocumented immigrants who are awaiting court cases and deportations.

After a thorough ID check at the gates, a guard led us through the complex and into a conference room for a pre-tour information session. Our host, a jovial facilities supervisor named Marty, rushed through a glossy PowerPoint with the obvious goal of subduing our skepticisms. As he highlighted the detention center’s diverse religious services and outdoor recreational space, Marty assured us that it’s “nothing like a prison or jail, but more like a college campus.” While this facility is doubtless the most visitor-friendly of Florence’s immigrant detention centers, the college campus comment went too far. As students, some of us may “imprison” ourselves within the library by choice, but that hardly compares to the forced incarceration and impending deportation of people on a massive scale.

While Marty (and a pack of four or five guards) led us on a tour, we walked past detainees wearing solid-color uniforms corresponding to their so-called “levels” of criminality. As we filed into the dining hall during its lunch-time peak, the room briefly quieted while prisoners turned their heads to gaze at this spectacle of college students. I was painfully aware of my visibly white appearance, my many privileges. Perhaps I should have looked back and smiled to acknowledge our common humanity, but I could only bear to glance down and walk quickly to the door, unable to own up to my general complicity within the whole system.

We continued on to the special housing unit, a relic of old-fashioned jailhouse configurations with bars substituting for interior walls. In what felt like a stark violation of privacy, we passed by detainees in see-through “segregation” cells (who Marty assured us were simply in medical isolation) as they napped and killed time. I felt as if we were walking through a human zoo, cage by cage. The regular housing unit wasn’t much better, sporting a large dormitory of bare-bones bunks where the room-occupancy ratio is designed to equal 5 feet of space per person. Although Marty claimed that the average length of stay at Florence Detention Center is 17-21 days, some people have languished here for years.

Visiting the detention center was yet another reminder of the ways that immigrants are construed as criminals and “threats” to the United States. Unfortunately, the prison industry profits from this national mindset each time an immigrant gets caught in the system, at the expense of taxpayer money. The cycle continues as these corporate interests lobby for more anti-immigrant legislation in the political realm. Yet the workers at Florence Detention Center seemed indifferent to this commodification of human beings. Like the Border Patrol agents we spoke with a few weeks ago, Marty claimed impartiality in his work and emphasized that it’s his job to simply enforce the laws. Despite his problematic detachment from the larger human rights implications, it’s understandable that he’s found ways to justify his work. For people like Marty, these prison jobs provide steady income and benefits within a rural economy that lacks other options. What would it look like for Florence to transition to a more socially constructive economy, one that doesn’t rely on the criminalization of impoverished brown people to bolster its revenues and keep local residents employed?

More questions emerged when we visited with a representative from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project over lunch. Our host, Dorien, and her colleagues offer pro bono legal services to people detained by ICE in Arizona, since the federal government does not provide lawyers for immigrants in deportation proceedings. Because of this shortcoming, 86% of detainees do not have an attorney and must learn to represent themselves within one of the most complex categories of U.S. law. Members of the Florence Project strive to provide immigrants with a variety of legal tools by talking with people about their options, giving know-your-rights presentations, offering one-on-one preparation for hearings, supplying small law libraries in the detention centers, and partnering with other advocacy organizations.

It was refreshing to visit candidly with Dorien, since she frequently navigates the multilayered settings of the Florence Detention Center and other ICE facilities (like the Pinal County Jail) that harbor even worse conditions. She compared the Florence Project’s work to operating an emergency room, as these detention centers are places of continual crisis for the people that inhabit them. Given this reality, the triage-style application of direct legal services is necessary but not exactly transformative. Despite the difficulties in balancing immediate needs with long-term change, Dorien has focused on finding small-scale solutions to concrete problems while maintaining relationships with organizations that pursue broader social transformation. Yet she also admits that the Florence Project frequently deals with failure: many clients can’t win their cases in a system that is stacked against them. For people in direct service roles, sometimes the most essential work involves meeting individuals on a human level and bearing witness to the impossible situations that they struggle through.

Another important message from Dorien’s visit was the necessity of nonviolent communication across-the-board. In the Florence Project’s work, maintaining respectful relationships with prison employees is the key to accessing clients and gaining the necessary rapport for constructive conversations regarding daily injustices. Furthermore, outright anger toward detention center workers could create a ripple effect and be redirected toward the detainees. This is a lesson I will carry with me as I continue on this journey with Border Patrol officers, prison workers, and others who are making a living in this complex world. In order to overpower the culture of distrust and imprisonment, we – as activists – need to set the precedent for a radical society founded on love and openness.

— submitted by Elsa Goossen

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Operation Streamline

On Friday February 21 we headed to downtown Tucson to a non-descript gray building, the federal courthouse, to witness Operation Streamline. Operation Streamline is a criminal proceeding, which, every day, turns 70 migrants into criminals, forced to serve jail time for attempting to cross the border into the United States. Private industry and prisons make lots of money off of these proceedings, but it has not been shown to deter people from crossing the border, one of the justifications for its existence. Although we had read a bit about the history of Operation Streamline and some detailed accounts of what goes on in a hidden courtroom on the second floor, nothing could prepare me for one of the heaviest things I have witnessed in the borderlands.

I cannot adequately describe Operation Streamline in written language. It was already clear to me that justice does not exist in the US. Witnessing Operation Streamline offered more evidence of the unjustifiable and arguably unconstitutional practices that happen every day, stripping individuals of their humanity. Depressing, sad, confusing, angering, horrific, awful, inhumane…none of these words can replace the sight of 70 brown bodies in chains, largely in cloths worn crossing the desert, all personal items stripped from them. While witnessing the proceedings, I tried to see each migrant as an individual with a face and a name and a home and a history and a context and a family, all of which is ignored, suppressed and denied for the sake of the “security” of the US. What is presented to the audience are 70 largely expressionless faces, headphones in to hear the Spanish translation, backs to the “audience.” The courtroom is silent save the almost constant clatter of chains. The only occupants of the space are us, lawyers dressed in suits and high-heels (suffice it to say many are old white men), the magistrate, the marshals and perhaps a few others. After opening comments 70 individuals are asked the same mechanical questions to which they answer “si” (yes) or “no,” and “culpable” (guilty). Occasionally a question is asked, or a concern raised. One man has an arm dislocated by border patrol. Another suffers extreme dehydration. Another has a serious heart condition and has left his medication in the desert. They are told to tell the medical examiner when they get to prison, as if prisons have ever provided proper medical care. Another man asks to not be returned to immigration. Some answer immediately. Some pause before responding. In the space of several hours 75 individuals plead guilty to entering the US illegally and are sentenced to up to 6 months in prison before they are deported.

Through this process beautiful, respectable human beings are reduced to ghosts or the faceless, nameless “criminal” or “alien.” There is one man there who several of us spoke to in Altar, Mexico. Towards the end, two young women are called up who are indigenous and not fluent in Spanish. Little effort is made to ensure they understand what is going on. Their lawyer, a large white man, towers over them. The magistrate treats them like babies, admonishing them for crossing the desert, telling them they were lucky they didn’t die, asking them what their mother’s would think. At the end their lawyer offhandedly says to us “they cried at just the right time haha.” And then the proceedings close.

I think I will be processing for many months or years what I saw here, what to think, and how to respond. Who/what is to blame and who/what should or can I direct my anger or disgust at? How am I, a white, female, healthy US citizen implicated in these proceedings? What is my responsibility having born witness? The facts are clear, as laid out by readings and our talk with a Federal Public Defender who we talked with for a few hours before witnessing the proceedings. This lawyer discussed the history of Operation Streamline and her thoughts about what is behind it.  She also talked about her place within it, giving me a lot to think about concerning her role in the system and her argument that people calling for public defenders to step down and not play a part in Operation Streamline is actually harming the cause, and that it is important to have decent public defenders who speak Spanish involved. It is clear who the primary beneficiaries of this spectacle are: the local economy, private corporations, prisons and the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), among many others. The impulse to stand up and interrupt proceedings, to shout, to throw something, are suppressed while sitting motionlessly on the wooden benches. While we were there, I was thinking back to Simon Sedillo and his idea that we are in a “prison of peace and tranquility.” How are we to break down the walls of this “prison”? Operation Streamline put many pieces to together for me, linking what we saw in Arivaca, at the Border Patrol Station and at the migrant shelter in Altar. It adds one more face to the journey of migrant realities.

Operation Streamline highlights many of the themes, trends and realities we have been learning about. The real power in the US, private corporations, are implicated here. Operation Streamline is part of the capitalist enterprise. It’s about money, the migrants are commodities. Another theme here is the creation of the “other,” the “criminal,” and the “alien.” I think the construction of these identities and labels facilitates Operation Streamline, hides it, and makes it palatable for much of the public at large. The discussion with the public defender added complexity and highlights the different worldviews and ways of understanding the system and one’s place within it. I believe that the public defender was arguing for reform from within the system. She made a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” or more humane vs. less  humane public defenders. Although it is difficult for me, after witnessing the proceedings, to not see her as part of the system or machine, facilitating what is Operation Streamline, she is a respectable human being with certain opinions and I do want to put serious thought into what she says considering she has been operating from within the system for awhile. This all relates back to the question of what social change is, or should be, from where change can come, and what sorts of jobs and activities may strengthen the system they are trying to combat. Operation Streamline and the public defender’s role also highlight the limits of law and ways it can be bent to serve powerful interests.

I do not think I will forget the faces I saw today, especially the last two young women around my age. I want to try to not let the memory of the individuals in chains I saw today be relegated to the memory of ghosts. I want to further consider my place within or against this system and want to remember that this is a reality that has been happening and may very well continue to happen every day for months and years.

— contributed by Sylvia Woodmansee