MPN spoke to advocates and an attorney working on a lawsuit by a group of refugees who are suing the government and for-profit GEO Group for the abuse and torment they suffered at the notorious Adelanto ICE detention center in California.
ADELANTO, CALIFORNIA – A group of refugees from Central America, who faced beatings and abuse while detained at a California detention center last year, are pursuing legal action in hopes of drawing attention to the systematic abuse of migrants who are being confined in a growing network of concentration camp-style facilities across the United States.
The civil rights lawsuit alleges that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau, for-profit prison operator GEO Group, and the City of Adelanto are responsible for “considerable damages” inflicted on the group of eight asylum-seekers, one of whom remains imprisoned.
The notorious GEO Group — a multinational for-profit prison operator with nearly 150 prisons across the globe, and one of the largest contractors for ICE — has long been accused by human rights monitors of utterly neglecting the well-being of their detainees as they rake in billions in revenue.
The refugee group faced brutal reprisal last June after it announced its intention to launch a peaceful hunger strike in a bid to draw attention to the wretched and torturous conditions at Adelanto ICE Processing Center, a GEO Group facility known as one of the worst detention centers in the United States.
According to the complaint attorneys filed in a Los Angeles court:
Although Adelanto is a government facility for political asylum seekers and other immigrant detainees, and its inhabitants are overwhelmingly law-abiding foreign nationals seeking safety and refuge, its conditions mirror those of this country’s most abusive prisons. It has gained notoriety as the ‘deadliest immigration detention center in the country’ and it has been the subject of Congressional, State and Federal inquiries. Human Rights Watch has documented all manner of abuses there. In the first months of 2017 alone, several foreign nationals detained at Adelanto died as a result of the deplorable conditions they were subjected to at the facility.”
“This case is about the atrocious conditions at detention centers for immigrants, especially at private prisons,” attorney Colleen Flynn told MintPress News. Flynn – like other lawyers working on the lawsuit – is a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a civil-rights group that provides legal services and know-your-rights training to immigrants across the U.S.
“These brave asylum-seekers wanted to go on strike to bring attention to these horrible conditions and for that, they were met by violence from guards,” Flynn added.
The lawsuit may take several years before it reaches the trial stage, but Flynn and other attorneys hope to shed light on a problem that advocates say has only grown – and also attracted more attention – amid the massive expansion of ICE’s mandate under the hard-right, white-nationalist agenda of President Donald Trump and his “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement agenda.
ICE spokespeople have refused to respond to the allegations, citing ICE’s policy of not commenting on pending allegations.
“However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations,” ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley told Reuters in an email.
Adriana Jasso, a program coordinator for the U.S.-Mexico Program of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, told MintPress News that the group’s complaints indicate a system-wide problem. Her office regularly receives calls from migrant detainees who are victims of arbitrary solitary confinement, physical punishment, and illegal threats by federal agents or government-contracted personnel. Jasso added:
In Adelanto and other private prisons for immigrants we’re seeing more hunger strikes, deaths, complaints of assault and medical neglect, and other forms of abuse. What does this say about the mistreatment and exploitation that occurs in the migrant incarceration regime?”
Escaping death in their homeland
The group had participated earlier in 2017 in a caravan that wound its way through Mexico in hopes to call attention to the dire plight faced by Central American refugees, many of whom faced abuse not only at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities but Mexican state security forces as well. As the group traversed the country, they gathered other refugees along common migrant trails and railways before holding a mass demonstration in Tijuana.
All of the eight refugees involved in the lawsuit had been targets of violent criminal organizations in El Salvador and Honduras – including the same organized crime groups that the Trump administration has denounced as “animals” amid its bid to blur the lines between asylum-seekers and criminals.
The United States government has an obligation to extend asylum to those who arrive at the border and meet the basic standards, defined by international law, for what constitutes a refugee. Anyone facing a well-founded threat of persecution owing to their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” is entitled to begin the process of gaining asylum under the Refugee Act of 1980.
According to the lawsuit, the Adelanto detainees included investigative journalist Isaac Antonio Lopez Castillo of El Salvador, who exposed the connections between his local government, the police and MS-13; Omar Arnoldo Rivera Martinez, who saw his teenage daughter attacked and brother killed in full view of his family; a young gay man who was subject to horrific abuse and death threats on account of his sexuality; and a vocal opponent of gang violence who sought political asylum after his brother and cousins were killed and his own life was threatened. The remaining migrants each had similar ordeals.
“Loved ones were kidnapped and murdered in their home countries, and they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border having survived violence and threats on their lives, seeking safety and political asylum,” the attorneys’ stress. Upon entering the United States, however, the group was immediately taken into custody and incarcerated at Adelanto.
Critics have noted that in recent years – and especially under the Trump administration – the U.S. asylum system has been flipped on its head and turned toward punitive ends in pursuit of a blatantly xenophobic agenda.
The majority of asylum seekers don’t warrant any type of incarceration, but these kinds of detentions are being used purportedly to prevent more refugees from coming. There is no basis in security considerations or danger to the public. This is not how you treat people fleeing violence and traumatic situations.”
Deplorable treatment and abuse
When the group arrived at Adelanto, they were confronted by a horrid situation, as well as conditions for their release that seemed impossible to fulfill. As the lawsuit detailed:
The underwear they were provided was dirty and unwashed, having previously been worn by other detainees. They were given only foul, nearly-inedible meals, and they did not have reliable access to clean, safe drinking water. Their belongings were regularly thrown away. They were mistreated, degraded, and humiliated by the staff. Their communications with their families and their attorneys and advocates were severely limited. And they were given impossibly high bond amounts – well beyond their meager means.”
In hopes that they could somehow pressure ICE officials to better their conditions, the group collectively decided to go on a hunger strike and present a handwritten list of concerns to Adelanto staff.
“They looked at us as if we were worse than criminals,” Alexander Antonio Burgos Mejia, 29, told reporters at the Los Angeles press conference in July that announced the lawsuit.
Good turnout this morning for a press conference announcing a lawsuit against Adelanto Detention Facility for civil rights violations against 8 men who led a hunger strike against inhumane detention conditions. #Solidarity #Resist #AbolishICE pic.twitter.com/3NEenENxj6
— NLG-LA ⚖️ (@NLG_LosAngeles) July 24, 2018
It was at that stage that the group faced a brutal attack by guards who brutally beat them in the face, scalp and groin while dousing them in pepper-spray and slamming them against the walls and floor. Soaked in pepper spray and bloodied, the protesters were then thrown into scalding hot showers in an attempt to open their pores to the spray, causing burns and lasting, excruciating pain. The group was then forced to stay in high-security segregation cells for 10 days.
“I don’t think they would treat criminals the way they treated us,” Mejia added.
For Omar Martinez, who was wrongfully accused by authorities of “inciting a group protest,” the attack was especially severe: not only did the initial attack by GEO guards lead to him losing a dental crown, tooth, and 14-tooth gold mouthpiece, but his nose was also severely fractured.
Following his time in detention alongside his comrades, Martinez was placed in a high-security ward along with members of the same gangs that murdered his family members and caused him to seek asylum to begin with. His pleas to be transferred out of the ward fell on deaf ears, and he remained alongside dangerous criminals for a month.
Martinez still hasn’t undergone surgery for his broken nose, despite a doctor’s recommendation five months after the assault. The widespread neglect of detainees’ medical needs has long been a common issue at GEO facilities and especially at Adelanto – in 2015, Raul Ernesto Morales Ramos died of organ failure with signs of widespread cancer that had simply been ignored.
Broad neglect on a system-wide level
“The fact is that these detention centers are in essence private businesses, so there is little accountability and transparency,” Jasso commented. She added:
At the heart of these inhumane punitive institutions is the money [interest]. After all, these are multi-billion dollar entities that sell a product – in this case, human beings. [Private prison corporations] CoreCivic, Inc. and GEO, Inc. run more than half of these detentions centers nationwide. In 2017, they reported earnings of over $4 billion. They are one of the most powerful lobbying groups at all levels of state and federal government. From 2003 to the present, it’s estimated that over 2.5 million people have gone through the experience of detention. This gives you an idea of how much profit these corporations have accumulated.”
Such profit accumulation derives from the trimming of costs deemed non-essential by corporate management, argues writer Salvador Rangel, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rangel told MintPress News:
The whole argument behind private prisons, according to their CEOs and supporters, is that they could do a more efficient and cost-effective job of keeping people locked up [and] they do this by reducing what it costs them to keep a person behind bars – which means getting rid of anything that is not directly related to that end.
Anything beyond that bare minimum, such as providing adequate food, healthcare, housing [and] recreation — anything more than warehousing people – will be cut back or outright gotten rid of.”
Foremost among the costs companies like GEO seek to minimize are payroll expenses related to staffing facilities with professionals qualified to take care of detainees’ medical needs.
“Adelanto’s main concern has always been medical neglect – we continue to hear stories of people not receiving medical care when requested,” explained Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice policy and campaigns coordinator Luis Suarez. Suarez told MintPress News that his group, like many other immigrant-rights organizations, has been stretched to full capacity by the drastic uptick in enforcement activities by ICE and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.
“The human rights abuses by ICE and GEO have only gotten worse,” Suarez lamented.
In June, around a thousand migrant detainees and asylum-seekers were transferred to nearby Victorville Federal Prison, just a few miles away from Adelanto. The prison – which has been variously described in headlines as a “ticking time-bomb” or “Guantanamo Bay for asylum-seekers” – has seen widespread problems in recent weeks such as infectious disease outbreaks, woefully insufficient medical staff, and widespread suicide attempts in recent weeks. In many ways, migrant detainees’ grievances at Victorville describe conditions identical to those at Adelanto.
Immigrants detained at Victorville are experiencing deliberate mistreatment to deter them from seeking asylum. The have gone weeks without receiving clean uniforms, they express being hungry, not having recreational time, and a growing population is expressing concern that medical needs aren’t being addressed.
The situation has grown so desperate that even the representatives of prison guard unions are expressing fear to the press that a riot could break out among detainees.
“They’re human beings. We keep messing with these people and not giving them the basics of what they need, it’s going to entice them to flip out,” a union official representing Victorville staff told Huffington Post.
Migrant-scapegoating and white supremacy as state policy
While the mistreatment of migrants had already reached a crisis point under former President and “deporter-in-chief” Barack Obama, the persecution of migrants under President Trump has become a sort of white-nationalist political theater – a display of symbolic violence – argues Rangel.
In an article published in Counterpunch last month titled “‘These Are Not Our Kids’: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border,” Rangel cited the separation of families at the borders and mass incarceration of minors as indicative of how the “Trump administration has turned the suffering and humiliating of migrants into spectacle – reminiscent of former sheriff and convicted felon Joe Arpaio’s desert tents and accompanying pink prison uniforms.”
Speaking to MintPress News, Rangel argued that the so-called “migration crisis” hype drummed up by the Trump administration is merely a means to justify the “hypercriminalization” and scapegoating of immigrants during a time of global economic crisis, and to renegotiate the relations between rich and poor – between labor and capital – along racial lines.
“These policies, in line with the broader agenda of neoliberalism, have led to increased poverty and misery among Americans of all racial backgrounds — including whites,” Rangel noted. Such migrant-scapegoating and white-nationalist messaging helps to distract Trump’s poor and working-class base from the fact that his administration’s policies exclusively favor the super-rich to the detriment of the vast majority of U.S. residents. Rangel explained:
Along with administration policies seeking to minimize the status of non-whites – such as the Muslim Ban, or siding with the alt-right during last year’s pro-Confederate rallies in Charlottesville – this reassures poor whites that they have it good despite their lack of decent paying jobs, affordable healthcare, or housing.
The neglect for medical attention, miserable living conditions and other abuses in the detention centers all fit within this strategy.
If the administration can’t materially improve the lot of those he claimed he was going to help, he can at least make their situation look good by comparison!”
“We have to activate ourselves at whatever level we can“
All of the former detainees besides the alleged “ringleader” Martinez are now living in different parts of the country. While five are living with their families and loved ones, two are staying at churches that are sponsoring their cases. Only one of the refugees has so far been granted asylum, while the remaining requests are still pending, according to Flynn.
While the group hopes to gain justice from this lawsuit, they are more concerned with exposing the institutionalized depravity prevailing at Adelanto and to prevent the brutality they were subject to from being visited on future detainees. Jasso stated:
Those of us outside of the walls of these detention centers have a fundamental responsibility to keep our eyes and ears open to when these calls of hunger strikes or collective statements for better treatment come from the inside – we have to activate ourselves at whatever level we can.”
She added, “The inhumanity and abuses that millions have suffered from are more and more resembling the experiences of those who suffered the inhumanity of concentration camps.”
Beyond the lawsuit alone, many are also hoping that the present attention the migrant incarceration regime is receiving can provide a window of opportunity to push back, and begin pressuring lawmakers to take a stance in defense of immigrants who hope to find refuge in the United States.
“Our community is starting to realize ICE’s abuse of power has gone too far,” Suarez noted, adding that this has fueled abolitionist calls represented by the popular hashtag #AbolishICE.
The slogan has become popular among some Democratic politicians, who are either calling for an end to the ICE bureau or demanding the transparency and accountability that advocates have long sought.
“A congressional representative’s silence to our communities only means that they are complicit with the current environment this administration has created,” Suarez stressed.
Some hope can also be found in the social movement activity sparked by outrage over government abuses in the detention centers, noted Rangel.
“I think the fact that Trump reversed the policy of family separations is a testament to this — communities agitated, protested, and in the end they influenced mainstream opinion to such degree that the administration saw their policy as a political liability,” Rangel said, adding that the widespread anger led to politicians seeking to tap into the issue and even echo the call to abolish ICE.
Of course one has to be wary of politicians’ sudden apparent support for a cause that until recently they were largely silent about, but what this does tell me is that public pressure is one of the ways that some of these actions can be reversed.”
But what remains key is to unite the struggles of people suffering from institutionalized violence, government abuse, and economic exploitation. Rangel emphasizes the importance of forming broad multiethnic coalitions linking movements to one another as a means to convey that, as the old radical labor movement slogan goes: “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
We have to build power this way so we’re better prepared to respond when the next attack comes – and yes, it’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’
In the long run, we have to move away from a system in which an increase of profits for a few requires that whole segments of the population are warehoused and subjected to this kind of cruelty and violence – the kind which this administration has all-too-readily doled out.”
Top Photo | A detainee rests his hands on the window of his cell in the GEO Grou-run ICE detention center in Adelanto, about 80 northwest of Los Angeles in California. Lucy Nicholson | Reuters | Univision
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.