Port Isabel Detention Center: Opposition from Inside and Outside

Published on Texas Civil Rights Review – Looking to the Lone Star of Conscience – Greg’s website, by Nick Braune, June 01, 2009.

Over the last five weeks or so, there has been an attempt to get a story out to the public about the Port Isabel Detention Center close to Brownsville – a hunger strike has taken place there. One of the problems was that the authorities, (ICE and facility directors) simply denied to the press that any serious discontent existed. However, a number of activists in the Valley – and I am happy to say basically young people – have continued to be concerned and have been reaching the press various ways and speaking to groups about what they know.

The hunger strike story finally surfaced a bit in the regional newspapers due to rallies held outside the center. And one public rally I attended was covered on the Rio Grande Valley’s Channel Five, although to my knowledge Channel Five has not followed up by visiting Port Isabel to interview detainees. 

Information also circulated at the founding event of the new Amnesty International student chapter at South Texas College in Weslaco on May 5th; the forum drew about 100 attendees, consisting of students, teachers, and local activists …

… Over the last five weeks or so, there has been an attempt to get a story out to the public about the Port Isabel Detention Center close to Brownsville — a hunger strike has taken place there. One of the problems was that the authorities, (ICE and facility directors) simply denied to the press that any serious discontent existed. However, a number of activists in the Valley — and I am happy to say basically young people — have continued to be concerned and have been reaching the press various ways and speaking to groups about what they know.

The hunger strike story finally surfaced a bit in the regional newspapers due to rallies held outside the center. And one public rally I attended was covered on the Rio Grande Valley’s Channel Five, although to my knowledge Channel Five has not followed up by visiting Port Isabel to interview detainees.

Information also circulated at the founding event of the new Amnesty International student chapter at South Texas College in Weslaco on May 5th; the forum drew about 100 attendees, consisting of students, teachers, and local activists.

The energetic new Amnesty club invited Ann Cass of Proyecto Azteca to speak on the border wall and invited Juan Guerra to speak on private prisons. He is the previous Willacy County district attorney who caused a stir last year by indicting State Senator Eddie Lucio and Vice-President Dick Cheney for profiting improperly on the construction and operation of taxpayer-supported private prisons. (Incarceration is a huge business, involving giant corporations, public money, and many slick consultants. Although Guerra’s indictments did not get very far and his opponents drummed him out of office last year, he is a convincing speaker, has the needed facts, and certainly seems to this reporter to be on the right trail.)

At the Amnesty event, members of the Student/Farmworker Alliance and Southwest Workers’ Uni*n told the audience about the hunger strike and some of the issues which provoked it. The activists reported that there is a rolling hunger strike going on now, with some inmates taking turns refusing food so that they do not get too weak in the process. Anayanse Garza, a spokesperson for the activists, has spoken to several detainees and estimated that 100 to 200 have participated in the hunger strike one way or another.

One person she spoke to said he was retaliated against for participating in the hunger strike, basically put in the “hole” for not eating, even though he felt weak and should have been monitored by the infirmary. He has been at Port Isabel for two years. The activists interviewed several detainees and picked up many little stories of abuse: forcing the prisoners to stand in the sun in the recreation area when shade is obviously available, serving undercooked meat, delaying in answering written requests, and more serious things like roughing up prisoners and not providing proper medical attention.

Most of these people detained have not committed a crime and should not be in these centers. And several of the detainees to whom Garza and others in the campaign have spoken make it clear they are being held in detention even though they are not trying to stay in the States anymore; they want to go home.

The U.S. holds hundreds of thousands of immigrants in detention — it is a massive business — often keeping them indefinitely until some paperwork requirement is straightened out. Even though fewer undocumented immigrants have been entering the U.S. recently, there are three times more detainees than ten years ago. In summary: the centers are profitable, are run horribly, and are causing growing discontent.

Some good news in the fight against Port Isabel came out this weekend when Amnesty International’s Policy Director for Refugee and Migrant Rights, Sarnata Reynolds, sent out a letter to members announcing that AIUSA will meet with detainees and officials at Port Isabel within a week. They stressed that the hunger strike has placed an urgency on their decision. (This is the second most important breakthrough into the national scene that the local Port Isabel situation has achieved as far as I know. Previously, Amy Goodman on Democracy Now did an excellent piece on the situation.)

Two months ago Amnesty had put out a general report on detention centers in America. Severely criticizing the system; this report soon led them to Port Isabel. “We had no idea what was going to happen 64 days ago when we released new research detailing the harrowing conditions inside U.S. immigration detention centers,” said Reynolds in her public letter to Amnesty members. “The report brought to life the tragic stories of asylum seekers fleeing torture and even U.S. citizens being detained by an unjust, broken, and costly system.

“Within hours of the report going public, major news outlets picked up the story. One of those outlets, USA Today, ran an opinion piece on the research, and that article found its way to immigration detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center in southern Texas.” Reynolds believes that their report did give courage to those considering a hunger strike, and the organization does want to move quickly to reach the inmates.

There is considerable momentum building in opposition to the current operations, operations which violate international law, violate the dignity of those who migrate looking for work and a better life, and enrich the prison-industrial complex with taxpayer money. The Amnesty club at South Texas College has scheduled another forum for June 10th to discuss the detention center issues. Jay Johnson-Castro from Border Ambassadors, Anayanse Garza from Southwest Workers, and Jodi Goodwin, a Valley attorney specializing in immigration matters, will be on the panel. (full text).

[Part of this report appeared previously in the Mid-Valley Town Crier].

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