Hunger strikers give views
By Neita Cecil
The Dalles Chronicle
One of the six immigration detainees that just ended a hunger strike at the regional jail told a local pastor he had not seen his family for two years.
The 26-year-old man came to the United States at age two, according to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Pastor Red Stevens. He told Stevens, “’My mom had to escape an abusive husband who was in a cartel and she had to get out of the country.’”
He told Stevens he doesn’t know why immigration officers showed up one day two years ago and took him into custody. He was living in Washington at the time.
“He said he hadn’t committed a crime. ‘That’s the difference between me and the people in here, I didn’t do anything,’” Stevens recounted.
The man’s mother-in-law brought his two young sons to his first hearing two years ago, and he hasn’t seen them since.
He said he and his sons “did everything together, even brushed their teeth together.”
Stevens said the detainee “had a sense of humor. He wasn’t blaming anybody. He said, ‘The folks around here know me and I know them and they’re just doing their job. It’s the rules, they have to do the rules and I have to do the rules.’ But he said two years of trying to make instant coffee out of lukewarm water gets to you.”
The detainees ended their six-day hunger strike at the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility Thursday after jail administration agreed to provide them with a microwave, radios and access to jail programs. (See related story)
He said the detainee was eager to talk to someone, especially about his boys and his wife. “This has really changed for him because he’d always thought of himself as one of the population, to be singled out like this, he felt was very strange.”
His arrest came two years ago, during the administration of President Barack Obama. But President Donald Trump’s focus on removing illegal immigrants has brought new focus to deportations.
“Obama has deported more people than [President George W.] Bush or anybody before him. It’s so ironic, you know?” Stevens said.
Stevens said the fact that this detainee did not have a criminal history is “not the important part. The important part is, even if he was a criminal, he would’ve gotten a public defender.”
The detainee said the lunch meat is salty and “there’s no fresh anything,” Stevens said.
The other detainee Stevens talked to is a 23-year old who was arrested for possession of drugs last November. He also has a child and had been working construction for four years.
He told Stevens he “wasn’t right with God,” and he’s been reading the Bible. “He feels that this has been a chance for him to recommit himself to his family and to his Christian faith.”
Stevens said this detainee was “open and straightforward in not blaming anybody. He didn’t feel any personal hatred for anybody and he didn’t feel that anybody was treating him with any degree of animosity or disrespect, except for the fact that there were these rules preventing them from getting the same degree of” treatment as inmates in the regular jail population.
Asked what he did all day, the detainee said he worked out and reads the Bible. He can use a pull-up bar when they are allowed outside in the yard for an hour each day, but otherwise he is limited to doing pushups and stretches. “I asked him, ‘How many pushups do you do a day and he said 400.”
There’s a TV in their area, but it’s “on 24 hours a day and it’s just noise for us.”
He said he wanted “a chance to eat warm meals and not have to pay 75 cents for a little ramen.”
Stevens did not say what drug the detainee was charged with possessing. “I’m not concerned with his personal issues, I’m concerned with where he was now and that he felt he’d done a good thing [with the hunger strike], that this was part of his faith, that he was doing what God had called him to do: to stand up for immigrants, stand up for humane treatment.”
Another pastor asked the detainee how the “first PB&J” tasted after ending the hunger strike. “He rolled his eyes and said, ‘Ohhh! Whoa! Feeling that go all the way down! And chocolate. Chocolate milk.’”
Stevens said both detainees seemed healthy, positive and hopeful. “they both seemed very selfless in a way, wanting to help the [immigrant] community.”
Six immigration detainees at the regional jail broke their six-day hunger strike Thursday, saying the jail had agreed to provide them with requested amenities, including a microwave and radio.
The end of the strike was announced at a meeting in The Dalles Thursday evening of the Rural Organizing Project, which is helping local groups who are protesting the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facilities in support of the hunger strikers.
“They’re really proud,” said Jessica Campbell, co-director of the Rural Organizing Project, of the hunger strikers. “They’re grateful for the support from the community.”
Campbell said detainees have been asking NORCOR “for months” for “basic” amenities, including a radio.
NORCOR Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg said, “They wanted to have some radios, listen to some music, wanted a microwave…. I told them we were willing to do that, it would just take some time.”
He said, “It’s going to take a while for the radio because we’ve got to work through our vendor, Telemate, so we’ve got to set that up so they can have mp3 players because there’s no radio reception back there.”
He said the detainees – there are eight right now -- are in a large dorm-like area. It has a big day room with a TV, phone and tables, and at the back end of the dorm are bunk beds.
He added, “they want to be able to go to some of the programs that we have, and that’s fine. Yes, we’ll allow that.”
The programs include anger management, substance abuse treatment, parenting and cognitive behavioral restructuring therapy.
Usually, immigration detainees are not at the jail long enough to qualify for being in the programs, he said. A minimum stay in the jail of 30 days is normally required, he said.
“I haven’t added them because they are typically not there long enough. And I am willing to look at that,” he said.
Earlier complaints from hunger strikers were that they did not have deodorant or dental floss. It was unclear if those complaints stemmed from conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma or at NORCOR.
Brandenburg said inmates with no money are provided with basic toiletries, which include a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, shaving cream and shaver. Inmates with their own money can purchase them from the commissary. He said he didn’t know if deodorant or dental floss were provided with basic toiletries.
He said the detainees have showers in their units “so they can shower as frequently as they like.”
Campbell said detainees say conditions at NORCOR are so bad that detainees in Tacoma opt for solitary confinement rather than being transferred here.
She said they’ve complained of not getting socks. Brandenburg said all inmates and detainees are given fresh clothing, including underwear and socks, every other day.
Detainees have said the commissary is much more expensive than Tacoma, and while they can earn $1 a day in Tacoma working, they are not allowed to work in NORCOR. But they can do trustee jobs and get credit at the commissary.
Also, phone calls are 25 cents a minute at NORCOR, compared to seven cents a minute in Tacoma, Campbell said.
Campbell said the hunger strikers are “terrified” of retribution.
The protesters – who have gathered outside the jail nightly since Monday and will hold a rally Saturday at noon – contend the fact that the regional jail holds ICE detainees violates a 1987 Oregon law.
The law says: “No law enforcement agency of the State of Oregon or of any political subdivision of the state shall use agency moneys, equipment or personnel for the purpose of detecting or apprehending persons whose only violation of law is that they are persons of foreign citizenship present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws.”
Brandenburg said no state monies are used for detention since they are paid for by federal dollars from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Protesters are hoping to pressure the state government to prevent NORCOR from housing detainees. Calls to the governor’s office and state attorney general’s office were not returned by press time.
Cara Shufelt, co-director of Rural Organizing Project, said detainees maintain they should not be detained in a jail, since they do not face criminal charges, but are rather facing deportation.
Brandenburg said the detainees at the regional jail all have final deportation orders.
Protesters have stood outside the jail nightly since Monday, and plan a large protest Saturday from noon to 2:30 p.m.
The larger issue for detainees, whether they are at Tacoma or NORCOR, said Grace Warner of ROP, is that some have been held for two years with no ability to see their families. They contend this violates their human rights and the rights of anyone in America, citizen or not.
Detainees are frequently moved, and, as one speaker said Thursday, “They don’t know how long they’re be there. There’s no end time. That’s why it’s so inhumane.”
She said one man seen at NORCOR by an ACLU attorney had not been visited by anyone in 18 months. He had no family, no money, and no attorney.
Fr. Pat Bell, bishop of the Episcopalian Diocese of Eastern Oregon, said the Episcopal Church has offered its location on Union Street as temporary quarters for Rural Organizing Project and ACLU attorneys.
Bell said his own family includes first-generation immigrants, some of whom have never been able to be documented. But that was not for lack of trying.
He seeks a reasonable and fair immigration policy. He said he’s not speaking about the criminal element among immigrants. “Once we can agree that we do not want that element -- whether they be documented or not -- loose on the streets, there is that much more complex issue about people who are contributing to our communities, who are fulfilling a vital role that oftentimes people of a different color or race are not fulfilling, and some of them have put down deep roots.”
“I know families that have been here for five decades, have children and grandchildren, and have tried to get citizenship, and have not been able to, and probably 20 years ago, gave up.”
He said, “They are upstanding, valued people in our community.”
He said immigration reform must be complex if politicians haven’t been able to address it for 20 years.
He added, “While the complexities of the law are one thing, the care of the people that fall into that system, and that’s part of the issue with the protests here, we are tending to treat these people in ways that we may want to give serious consideration to their due process and their rights as humans.”
He invites those with anti-immigration views to get to know the personal stories of immigrants.