Prison and immigrant activists celebrate victory over ICE detention center

    As the immigrant rights community celebrates the announcement from President Obama that nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants are no longer at risk of deportation, there is another victory worth recognizing in the struggle to end the unjust detentions and deportations of immigrants. After nearly two years of organizing against a privately-run immigration detention center slotted to be opened south of Chicago, activists successfully defeated the proposal to build the facility. The prison would have been funded by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in Crete, Ill.

    The announcement came on the evening of June 18 after the Board of Trustees in the south Chicago suburb voted to end negotiations with CCA about opening the prison for undocumented persons — a remarkably quick victory for the immigrant rights movement, prison abolitionists, community groups and advocates of direct action.

    In the summer of 2011, citizens learned of the planned CCA facility through the Joliet Diocese Restorative Justice Committee and other immigrant rights groups. For the most part, according to Crete resident Concetta Smart, citizens were unaware of the negotiations between ICE, CCA and the Village of Crete. So Smart, urged on by Sr. Lisa Polega from Sister and Brothers of Immigrants, organized a house meeting.

    “We invited all Crete Citizens and all our contacts from peace and social justice groups and immigrant rights groups,” explained Smart in an email. About 50 people showed up for that first meeting in November 2011 and Concerned Citizens of Crete and Surrounding Communities was formed with the purpose of educating the public about the detention center and to find a way to close it.

    The group, along with Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), pushed SB 1064 in the Illinois General Assembly as a way to stop the prison. The bill, according to Fred Tsao from ICIRR, would have barred the use of private prison companies for any kind of government detention function, but it failed to pass the House on three separate occasions.

    When asked about the most recent failure of SB 1064 in early June, Tsao responded in an email that

    the bill faced enormous opposition from CCA, which hired three state-level lobbyists and lined up support from the powerful building trades unions; faced with this opposition, we were not able to line up a majority of House members to support our bill, and the bill died on the final day of the General Assembly’s spring session.

    But other strategies to oppose the detention center were also at work. When Concerned Citizens reached out to Chicago activists in February 2012 by holding open meetings, organizers from Moratorium on Deportations and No Name Collective realized that this was a big issue that Chicagoans should be involved in.

    To raise awareness, explained José Herrera by phone, activists from No Name Collective, Moratorium on Deportations and undocumented families from Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission embarked on a three-day march from Chicago to the proposed building site over the Palm Sunday weekend this past Spring.

    When the walkers left on Friday, there were only 50 or so participants leaving from the Little Village neighborhood, a predominantly Latino community in Chicago. As the march neared Crete on Sunday, the numbers swelled to a few hundred people — a huge presence for an otherwise quiet farm town — including U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who arrived at the end for a photo-op.

    Herrera, from the No Name Collective in Chicago, thought the walk was a success. “The issue went viral,” he said. “Nationally, different organizations got involved and we continued staying involved with the Concerned Citizens by phone and email to strategize what’s next.

    Marimonica Murray, 47, is another Crete resident and a behavioral health administrator. She is also a longtime activist involved in peace issues, various local struggles and voter registration. Murray, along with 15 or so other organizers, went door-to-door on weekends collecting more than 2,000 signatures opposing the prison. In a town of only 8,000 — of whom, according to Murray, only 5,000 or so are registered voters — that is a significant opposition.

    As support for the prison weakened, politicians and other officials were inundated with requests from constituents to oppose the prison. Specifically, according to Tsao, State Rep. Anthony DeLuca was put in the position where he had to listen to his constituents and “call the question” with the village leadership — a move that signified diminishing support among legislators.

    At the request of Rep. Jackson, ICE agreed to come to Crete for a town hall meeting at the local sixth-grade center on May 21. Murray was key in helping to rally 500 or so residents who were expected to show up and voice their concerns. But ICE and Jackson canceled at the last minute. A press release from Rick Bryant, Jackson’s Chief of Staff, indicates Jackson “postponed” the meeting after consulting with state and federal law enforcement officials due to “security concerns raised by NATO and outside protesters who are threatening to come to Crete.”

    “ICE chickened out,” said Murray when I interviewed her. “Things were heading south for the prison and [they knew] that it probably was not going to happen here. ICE didn’t want to put up with people and hear what they had to say.”

    Instead, ICE — and the Chicago police — had to put up with hundreds of activists shutting down ICE themselves. Moratorium on Deportations, which had planned to melt a giant block of ice outside of the public dialogue to protest the systemic issues of detention and deportation, was joined by protesters remaining from the anti-NATO actions and Occupiers at Clark and Congress, the intersection where ICE’s Chicago headquarters is located, as they called for “No Borders, No Cages, and No Crete Prison.”

    The Board of Trustees vote came as a surprise, then, after the SB 1064 defeat in the beginning of June. While the board cited limited financial benefits and liability risks as the reasons for choosing to end negotiations with CCA, the decision seems more likely to reflect the consequences of face-to-face organizing and direct action.

    “We were a fire under their back end,” said Murray. “It was easier for [the board] to say no than to go ahead with it.” The significant opposition in Crete made the CCA prison a political liability for the village’s elected politicians; three of the trustees and the mayor are up for re-election in April 2013. An organized and confrontational opposition managed to defeat alliances between state interests and corporate power.

    The lessons learned here, though, will likely have to be applied again. In a prepared statement after the Crete vote, CCA announced their intentions to continue partnering with ICE to find another location for an immigrant detention center. Rozalinda Bocilla, an organizer with Moratorium on Deportations, emphasized the Crete victory as being only a partial win. In an email, she cautioned about “co-optation by the political machine” and focusing too heavily on “legislative efforts” as solutions to the immigrant prison industrial complex. “We knew we needed to be there to protest not just the detention center,” wrote Bocilla, “but the entire regime of detention reform.”

    Reflecting on the Crete decision, Moratorium on Deportations posted the following on their blog:

    We learned in this struggle that we can only win as a sum of efforts, that it takes different communities, each fighting in their own way. Our differences come from unequal power positions — we cannot ignore these differences, we fight to overcome them. We also learned about people power, which comes from our bodies, our lives, our analysis, our voices — with no promise of gain, of political capital, or of organizational self-promotion. We celebrate with renewed commitment, with rage and great joy. The struggle continues!

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