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Yearning for Home: Undocumented Immigrants Challenge the Border

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Posted on Mar 13, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

(Page 2)

Detention centers that house undocumented immigrants are privately run with little oversight. They are notorious for harsh treatment. Hundreds of immigrants have just launched a hunger strike at a facility in Tacoma, Wash., operated by government contractor GEO Group. The immigrants are protesting deportations as well as conditions inside the detention center. They are demanding better food, an increase in the $1-a-day wages for work, better treatment by prison guards and access to medical care. There are reports that the hunger strikers could be force-fed if they do not end their protest soon.

Detaining immigrants is big business, and companies like GEO Group have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress on immigration policies. Currently, activists are pressuring the Obama administration to end the so-called bed mandate requiring 34,000 beds be available each day to house immigrants in detention at a cost of $2 billion per year to taxpayers.

But the costs to immigrants and their families are incalculable. An analysis in Al-Jazeera America found a generation of young immigrants “scarred by parental loss.” Hundreds of thousands of children have lost parents to deportation and thousands are in foster care. The report cites psychological impacts such as “generalized anxiety, recurrent nightmares, depression, panic attacks and flashbacks.”

Abdollahi told me that families awaiting their loved ones on the U.S. side of the border were relatively calm. “A lot of them have walked through the desert before for weeks to make it to the country, only to be deported. So they realize the risks. Unfortunately that trauma is something that has become very normalized,” he said.

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The fact that immigrants are detained, demeaned and deported has become a “normal” thing in the U.S. Close to 2 million immigrants have been deported under Barack Obama—more than under any president in U.S. history. But now groups like NIYA and the hunger strikers in Washington are demanding a different way. With immigration reform indefinitely postponed at the congressional level, there is little left for activists and immigrants to lose. Actions like the one in Los Angeles in December—during which undocumented activists blocked a detention center for transporting deportees—are becoming more commonplace.

Even municipalities are defying federal immigration policy: The Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution in December calling on Obama to halt deportations by expanding his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to all noncriminal immigrants in the country. Several other cities are considering similar resolutions. And even Obama, in his latest budget proposal, offered to reduce the bed mandate from 34,000 to about 30,500.

But for people like Edgar Torres, policy changes are not coming soon enough. He has not seen his two younger sisters in four years and told me his mother had been up crying, awaiting his return to Texas where they live. All he wants, he says, is just “to go back to the country I believe to be my home. It doesn’t matter at what cost to me. As long as I can be with family, friends and be able to finish my degree.” 


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