By CARLOS SAPIR and HERMANN MORRIS
Detained immigrants at the Mesa Verde ICE facility and the Golden State Annex detention camp have been forced to call off a hunger strike after 35 days following brutal attacks and other punishments imposed by camp guards. Strikers immediately faced retaliation after the beginning of the strike in February in the form of solitary confinement and the loss of external communication with their families or lawyers. Beginning on March 7, strikers were battered and handcuffed by camp guards who proceeded to attempt to force feed them without medical oversight, a procedure which can be fatal. Attacks continued, with some strikers repeatedly hospitalized due to injuries, until the final hunger strikers suspended their strike out of fear of continued beatings. Despite the brutal repression, the former hunger strikers remain determined to protest their conditions and to organize for their freedom.
The February-March hunger strike is only the most recent tactic employed by detained immigrants to win their dignity and freedom. Previously, detained immigrants organized labor strikes within the camps. We interviewed Jose Cerros*, a strike leader at Mesa Verde in the April 2022 strike who has since been released from detention, to talk about the detainees’ tactics and goals.
WORKERS’ VOICE: How did you hear about and get involved with the strike?
JOSE CERROS: Actually, I was one of the individuals who started the labor strike in my dorm at Mesa Verde, on April 26, 2022.
WV: What were its demands? How was the strike carried out on the ground?
JC: The core demands were: improve the working and living conditions of the facility, get paid the California minimum wage law, and to be treated with dignity and respect by the administration and staff. The strike was being carried out by the collaboration of the folks inside and the community members, organizers, attorneys, and activists.
WV: What has been the response to the strike and its demands? How is the prison management responding?
JC: The response to the strike was challenging because the administration was livid about it happening. The treatment became worse for us on the inside and at the same time the administration denied what was happening. GEO and ICE were mad that we had the audacity to demand anything. Everything from communication, requests, and grievances went unheard by GEO and ICE. No one was being held accountable and the folks on the inside were being treated indiscriminately. ICE was complicit because they knew what was going on and still refused to do anything about it. The administration of the detention center is corrupt to begin with and they know how to cover things up. The GEO Group has a lot of money, power, and resources.
WV: What groups have been supporting strike efforts?
JC: The groups that have been supporting folks on the inside are many, and the network continues to grow. They include Pangea Legal Services, The California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, Centro, KWESI, Workers’ Voice, Papeles Para Todos, and others I cannot recall right now.
WV: How do you see this strike in the wider context of immigrant struggles?
JC: This strike is only a small piece of the puzzle. These types of institutions have been set in place to take advantage of cheap labor, however, the 13th Amendment does not [allow for the enslavement of] someone who is being held in detention for a civil matter. The struggle of detained migrant workers showcases the injustices that happen everyday in the name of profits. Migrant workers continue to be exploited in many different facets and there are no protections for them because under U.S. immigration law, they are unlawfully present in the country. At the end of the day, people are being denied the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!
WV: One thing that’s notable about this action is that it’s being carried out in California under a Democratic government that often touts having progressive and pro-immigrant values. How do you view the conditions of the detainees and their struggle in light of this?
JC: I personally don’t buy into the narrative and rhetoric about Democrats being for the working people. Both parties are unfortunately the same, and all you have to do is follow their track record. At the end of the day, policy is what makes things better or worse for our communities. The way I see it, we have to be careful with people who call themselves liberals and progressive. There aren’t enough policies that help our communities and that is what we have to pay attention to, not what title they use to describe their political party. The struggle is the same whether someone is in detention or out in the community. It’s just worse inside because folks don’t have a voice, and all rights get stripped from them.
WV: How do you think the struggle of immigrants and prisoners in this country can be moved forward beyond just this strike?
JC: I think first, we have to understand the problem and what’s causing it, and then try to fix that. We have to organize, come together, and plug up all the holes in the old wooden boat.
WV: What do you think is the role of labor unions in this country in relation to immigrant rights?
JC: Labor unions should be responsible for ensuring no one is taken advantage of in the workplace. Whether someone is a labor union member or not, a labor union should uphold what this means and work to protect all workers.
*Name changed in order to protect the safety of JC and the safety of their fellow strikers still detained in California’s detention centers.