This is an excerpt from the Families For Freedom newsletter for September, treating the important issue of activist approaches to local ICE detention contracts. To subscribe, email email@example.com; you can contribute to FFF here.)—TPOI editor.
Fight to Win
September 28, 2018
In early September, Hudson County announced their intent to phase out their detention contract with ICE by 2020. The news came after concerted efforts by local faith-based and advocacy groups to end the contract, and a lawsuit filed by the ACLU that targeted the Freeholders' shady actions in trying to get the contract renewed without community input.
The potential cancellation of ICE's contract in Hudson represents political strength: it would not be possible without growing support in our movement against immigration detention, if ICE's name did not now correctly represent malice and evil to the general public. Yet at the same time, it counteracts another win that also represented political strength, the establishment of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. On the one hand, the win of access to indispensable legal representation; on the other, the win of building political power among allies outside.
Critics of the phase-out are concerned that people detained in Hudson will be moved to remote detention centers, far from their families and attorneys. NYIFUP lawyers have come out in strong opposition to the planned phase-out on these grounds. In support of their position stand previous incidents, like when trans women incarcerated by ICE in Santa Ana City Jail, close to a dense network of support and services groups, were moved far away to a remote facility in rural New Mexico. Supporters of the Hudson contract ending—and of the growing number of other similar successes around the country—are behind it because of the political momentum it both creates and represents.
Beyond these two positions, there is also the question of efficacy. One of the organizations involved in the campaign against the Hudson contract stated that in order to abolish ICE "we must destroy ICE's capacity to incarcerate people." The statement is noble but the problem with it lies in the fact that this political win does not affect ICE's ability to incarcerate people. Anything that we can do to hinder ICE—to make 'em bleed—is absolutely worth doing, but we must understand that contracts with local jails and private prison companies come and go, whether in scandal or in silence.
Back in 2009-10, after people detained in Varick Street in Manhattan went on hunger strikes to draw attention to horrific conditions there, the jail stopped incarcerating people, many of whom would not be jailed in Hudson. But this decision was made by ICE, and its purpose was to get away from local scrutiny. More recently, in the wake of an 18-month-old baby being killed by her contact with the detention and deportation system, the City of Eloy pulled their contract with ICE for a family detention in South Texas. This too was a decision supported by ICE, and the contract has now been redrawn, this time with the city of Dilley, TX.
Across the country, more counties and cities are folding detention contracts with ICE, both under public pressure and without it. But as long as ending such contracts doesn't get people free, we have to ask ourselves what value these closures have. In contrast to ending contracts that promote information sharing between local law enforcement and ICE, or legislation barring ICE from certain areas, cancelling detention contracts more than likely just means relocating jails. Abolition doesn't mean the transporting of incarcerated people from county to county, nor the opportunity for new profit to be spun from immiseration; it means no more people locked up. What value do these campaigns have if the results resemble ICE's own past actions, and fail to promote political power among those incarcerated in these facilities?
To that point, it is noteworthy that in the debate that has unfolded about whether this closure is of value, the voices of the directly affected have been relatively absent.
Lawyers in movement are often correctly criticized for failing to see the forest for the trees, for working timidly within what's presently possible instead of pushing the boundaries of what is possible. But the concerns and criticisms raised by the lawyers here need not lead to a purely reformist attitude, focused only on procedural justice instead of actual justice. The concerns invite us who believe in abolishing ICE and the entire prison industrial complex to continue asking the question: how can we be effective? How do we ensure our fights are changing the conditions people suffer under, and not providing an outlet for the moral outrage of spectators? How do we fight to win?