By Una Tolca
“Detention center.” Sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? Like a children’s amusement center, or a welfare center. But it isn’t. A detention center in the United States is a macabre institution that forms a key part of the capitalist control and repression of migrants at the border and in the interior of the country. That is why actions and even strikes by migrants detained in them are not uncommon.
The most recent wave of actions broke out at the Mesa Verde detention center in Bakersfield and the Golden State Annex (GSA) in McFarland, both in California. At these facilities, detainees have launched heroic labor strikes against the conditions of their detention and their extreme exploitation in conditions that are essentially forced labor. La Voz de Los Trabajadores/Workers’ Voice has been supporting the strikers in their efforts.
Unlike the recent hunger strike waged by detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington State, the Mesa Verde and GSA actions are labor actions. They must be considered as part and parcel of the wave of industrial strikes and unionization that has shaken the country for two years now, and that recently gave us the victory at Amazon in Staten Island, N.Y. In fact, unions and other activists must treat this migrant strike as a vanguard of this struggle because even without union representation or legal rights they have had the courage to struggle.
The employer in this case is GEO Group, the world’s largest prison and electronic monitoring contractor, which operates 52 immigration enforcement facilities with capacity for 66,456 detainees in the United States alone. Thanks to its juicy contracts with the government to run various repressive facilities, the company made a profit of $551 million in the first quarter of 2022 alone. All at the expense of the lives of our people!
What pushed migrants at Mesa Verde and GSA detention centers to take this step, and confront GEO Group’s harsh position? At its centers, this company multiplies its profits by “offering” detainees a “volunteer” work program whereby they earn $1 a day for cleaning the filthy facilities. The company’s exemption from labor and wage legislation and the carceral labor regime it implements is akin to slavery. This is, in fact, perfectly legal, because despite the constitutional proscription of slavery there is a clause in the 13th Amendment that allows for it as punishment for crimes, such that it is written into the federal and state constitutions as “involuntary servitude.”
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, darling of Democratic Party liberals and adored by Silicon Valley bigwigs, has rejected efforts to reform the system to force prisons and detention centers to pay the legal minimum wage of $15 an hour.
It is not only the paltry pay that compelled the detainees to launch the strike but also the conditions of their detention, as illustrated by their list of demands. The 40 detainees on strike at the two centers are demanding dignified treatment for all detainees; an increase in the wages of detained migrant workers to $15 an hour; sets of bedding, towels, clothing, and footwear appropriate to the climate and activity and in good condition; quality personal hygiene supplies; quality, adequately-portioned food with fresh, clean fruit; hot water at all meals; potable water throughout the facility; in-person visitation rights and free virtual visits; a residential, dedicated facility physician; referral service to specialists; and sunscreen in the summer.
In response to the strikers’ tenacity, GEO Group administrators have met with detained migrants to negotiate. But these meetings and the paltry concessions have been aimed at disarming the strike. In response, with their demands unmet, the migrants are continuing the strike. Meanwhile, the company has allowed the living conditions of all migrants to deteriorate into filth, in order to demoralize the fighters. Two of the leaders were permanently segregated from the detained population and placed in solitary confinement. Despite this, the struggle continues.
The strikers are not alone. On the one hand, there are non-profit organizations like the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, which is pursuing a strategy of lobbying and intervening with agencies like Cal/OSHA, the California state agency in charge of occupational health and safety. While well intentioned, so far this strategy has not yielded much by way of results.
On the other hand, there are the militant organizations, whose strategy is the independent mobilization of the power of the working class and the oppressed to impose our demands. Prominently among these advocates is the organization Papeles Para Todos (Papers For All). This is a coalition of activists and immigrant rights groups in California that is independent from the Democratic and Republican parties. The coalition pursues the strategy of street mobilizations and strikes, leading up to general strikes, to achieve its goals, which include unconditional citizenship rights for all undocumented immigrants and migrants and open borders.
Workers’ Voice is part of Papeles Para Todos and has contributed to the leadership of the migrant strike solidarity campaign at Mesa Verde and GSA. Thanks to this campaign, funds have been raised to support the strikers, and support has been obtained from several unions and social organizations, such as Labor and Community for an Independent Party (LCIP), Labor Fightback Network, and SEIU Local 87 of San Francisco. A direct action is planned for the week of July 25, the details of which are still being determined as of press time (email us for updates and participation).
It is imperative that the campaign of solidarity with the strikers at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex continue—for the strikers, for their demands while they are detained and beyond, and for their release. We must push our unions and social or political organizations to speak out in favor of the strikers, to commit themselves financially to them and to help organize protest actions in the streets against these detention centers. Our organizations must coordinate to carry out these protests, and to build them up to continue the momentum of the great immigrant strike of 2006. It is not through lobbying or NGOs but through fighting together outside and against the bosses’ parties that we will achieve full rights in the U.S. and an end to the racist and anti-worker attacks on our communities.
Please send your monetary contribution for the strikers to https://gofund.me/fb8d96f0 (note: be careful to indicate 0% tip for the GoFundMe app if you do not want to reward GoFundMe itself on top of your contribution).
To get involved in organizing support actions, contact Workers’ Voice at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meet the strikers’ demands now!
Immediate and unrestricted release for detained migrants!
Full citizenship rights for all undocumented immigrants and migrants!
For a world without borders!
 https://investigate.afsc.org/company/geo-group; https://www.geogroup.com/LOCATIONS#:~:text=Our%20Locations,inventory%20and%20projects%20under%20development. Ver
Photo: Protest outside the Mesa Verde detention facility on June 4. (Tania Bernal / California Youth Justice)
By Una Tolca