A nationwide group of faith leaders congregated outside the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral to protest reportedly poor conditions, mistreatment and deaths of detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Roughly 50 people including pastors, activists and community members stood in a lot located between the ICE facility and Otero County prison to demonstrate. They gave testimonials, sang and prayed.
“We don't want this to be what describes and what shows our community. Our community is more than this," Joseph Hill, pastor of the Lordsburg Assembly church, said.
Hill and other clergy took part in a training program hosted by faith-based advocacy group NM CAFé. That includes visits to the border wall in Sunland Park and federal courthouse in Las Cruces.
He said the aim is to call attention not only to facilities in Otero, but issues of immigrant detention and mass incarceration.
“I believe in justice, I understand there needs to be a criminal justice system and I’m not against the criminal justice system, but there are exploitive practices that take place with private prisons. There are exploitive practices that take place with immigrants. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge that it makes people money. It makes people money, in some cases to harm them–and that’s not okay,” Hill said.
“We want these out of our state. We want beacons of hope to arise out of these places for the dignity of our people,” Hill said during a speech to members of the media.
More than half a million people were booked into ICE custody in fiscal year 2019–a 29 percent increase over the previous year and 58 percent higher than fiscal year 2017.
“We stand here not before a building that was erected in the past few years or repurposed in response to the particular responses of this administration, but we stand here before an entity that continues a 400-year long tradition of white supremacy, state violence, criminalizing and profiting off the inhumane treatment of black and brown people,” Rev. Bernadette Hickman-Maynard said.
Hickman-Maynard is the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Lynn, Massachusetts located northeast of Boston. The pastor said it was “interesting” to see the border wall in person.
“It looked to me like a cage and I was also, you know, I could see community on the other side and I wondered to myself who was being caged in? Hickman-Maynard said. “There was no connection and there was a cross where people used to be able to worship. They used to go both from the Mexico side and the United States side and that couldn’t happen anymore. And so, we’re being kept away from one another in a way that to me was a symbol of real evil.”
Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for a federal investigation into conditions at the Otero detention center last October after reports that several Cuban asylum-seekers tried to commit suicide.
A spokesperson from Management and Training Corporation, the private contractor running the facility, issued a statement during the protest.
Citing regular audits by several third parties, the company said “allegations of inhumane conditions, deaths and mistreatment are simply not true,” and that “detainees have access to timely medical and dental care,” and other resources.
It’s a stark contrast from what NM CAFé member Dani Gonzalez says her father experienced at Otero after ICE detained him two years ago.
“My dad went to court in Las Cruces and outside two streets away from the court, ICE was waiting for him. Those were the hardest three months for my family. My dad tells us that he was treated like cattle. That private prisons dehumanize immigrants and that there was no good hygiene and that there was a measles spread, outbreak in one of the bunkers so they had [to] quarantine both bunkers,” Gonzalez said.
Rev. Hickman-Maynard said she plans to share what she's learned with multi-faith organizers in Massachusetts. She aims to strategize ways to shut down detention centers and private prisons.
Hill said he appreciates the governor’s request for an investigation. But the Lordsburg pastor added that only matters if it leads to change that benefits detainees.
“The people that are in office, we put them there. And we need to speak out and make sure that people understand how this harms us, how this harms our families. The pain I see in people’s families. It needs to be known, it needs to be understood,” Hill said. “Specifically living in a county that’s on the border, far too often I hear people talking about what’s going on in my community and they’ve never even been there. And the voices of that community, of our community, they need to be amplified.”
As these people of faith amplified their message to those in power, they sought the intercession of another, higher power through prayer.
Here's the full statement emailed by Management and Training Corporation:
The employees at this facility are dedicated to the humane and dignified treatment of the men and women in their care. They work hard every day to provide quality services. Allegations of inhumane conditions, deaths and mistreatment are simply not true. The facility is audited regularly by several third-party organizations including the American Correctional Association, the Nakamoto Group and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
Detainees have access to timely medical and dental care—some of whom have never had access to quality healthcare before. The staff also provides detainees with daily recreation, nutritious meals, legal-rights courses, legal library resources, religious services and other programs while they await their civil detention hearing. They work hard to make detainees’ short stay at the facility productive and positive. Learn more about the facility here. And click here to learn more about Management & Training Corporation’s commitment to quality services in detention.” -Issa Arnita, Managing Director, Corporate Communications