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A Town of Immigrant Farm Workers Says No to ICE Detention Centers

Published by Yahoo on Sat, 22 Feb 2020

McFARLAND, Calif. -- As an immigrant in the country illegally, Maribel Ramirez does not officially have a say in the affairs of the small agricultural town in California's Central Valley that she has called home for 20 years.But late into the night Tuesday, she stood with hundreds of field workers and other residents outside McFarland's City Council chambers, a bullhorn in her hand. "No ICE! No GEO! We're farmworkers, not delinquents," they chanted in Spanish, led by Ramirez, 42.At issue was a multibillion-dollar corporation's proposal to convert two state prisons slated for closure into detention centers for immigrants in the country illegally, operated under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- a plan that city leaders said could provide this impoverished town with a financial lifeline.A new law in California outlawing private prisons will cost the city $1.5 million a year in taxes and other fees paid by the prison corporation, the GEO Group, unless the company can convert the two facilities it has operated there into immigration detention centers.McFarland, which gained its only previous measure of fame in the 2015 Kevin Costner movie, "McFarland, USA," is home to thousands of workers like Ramirez, who toil in the vineyards and the almond, pistachio and citrus orchards that stretch out in every direction. Up to half of the city's 15,000 residents, according to private estimates, are in the country illegally -- the very kind of people who might be housed behind bars in the facilities that until now have been sheltering criminals."Without GEO, we can't guarantee we can pay for law enforcement, fire or any other services," Mayor Manuel Cantu cautioned Wednesday, a day after the city's planning commission, bowing to overwhelming public sentiment, voted against the proposal.Cantu, who announced his resignation as mayor Wednesday, predicted that closure of the prison facilities, in a city already facing a $500,000 budget deficit, would be "devastating."But he appeared resigned: "If the residents don't want them because of their fear of ICE or whatever, the city belongs to the residents," he said in an interview.The company could appeal the planning commission's decision to the City Council, but residents made it clear they would do whatever they could to block the plan.Tuesday night's commission meeting saw a stream of residents come to the podium, urging city leaders to remember who lived in their town."You can find other options, but don't bring ICE. In the long term, the McFarland community will suffer," said Estevan Davalos, an undocumented farmworker from Mexico who has lived and worked in McFarland for years.Rural, cash-strapped cities across the country have increasingly relied on private prison companies for tax revenue, jobs and other financial benefits to stay afloat.But the private facilities have been criticized for promoting incarceration and lacking oversight. The new law in California also prohibits private immigration detention centers, but the GEO Group signed an agreement with ICE to operate the proposed facilities in McFarland before the law took effect -- leaving the final decision in the hands of the planning commission.In Adelanto, California, where the GEO Group already operates an immigration detention center, the city planning commission on Wednesday voted to approve a permit to convert another state prison, also run by GEO, to house immigrants.Ramirez, who helped organize the opposition in McFarland, said she was just 22 when she crossed the border from Mexico, found work picking grapes in McFarland and started a family.In all their years in the little town, she said, neither she nor her husband, Eusebio Gomez, who is also in the country illegally, had ever encountered immigration authorities."We have lived here in peace. We built our lives in McFarland, working to support our family without any fear," she said.Her son Jesus made straight A's in school, a source of pride for Ramirez, who is illiterate. Eusebio Jr. excelled at soccer and worked in the fields during his summer vacations to help the family.Feeling settled and secure, the couple last year began discussing with their landlord the possibility of buying the two-bedroom house that they have rented from him for 13 years.Then one day in mid-January, while she was pruning grapevines with her new red shears, her crew leader told her about a plan to refashion the prisons downtown into ICE facilities."Those two prisons three minutes from my house, they never bothered me," said Ramirez, sitting in the tidy kitchen of her house before heading downtown for the protest march and hearing Tuesday. "An ICE detention center, that would bring fear to our community. We might have to leave."Both GEO and the Justice Department have sued the state over the law banning new or renewed private prison contracts. In a bid to circumvent the law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October and effective in January, GEO and ICE signed an agreement in December to turn the state prisons in McFarland into federal detention facilities for immigrants, which they contend would still be legal.That's when the community got to work.Faith in the Valley, a local nonprofit, gathered people at St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church and organized groups to distribute petitions. Each afternoon after finishing her shift in the vineyards at 4 p.m., Ramirez and her oldest son joined dozens of other people knocking on doors to inform the community and seek support for their campaign.They asked people to fill out their name, address and phone number on a green commitment card that read in Spanish, "No to Immigrant Detention Centers in McFarland." They laid out what was at stake to whomever would listen."Some people slammed doors on our faces," said Stefani Davalos, Estevan Davalos' 17-year-old daughter, who went door-to-door with her father. "Others were afraid to sign. But a lot of people, even though they didn't have papers, agreed to fill out the card."All told, the group collected 1,000 cards.Antero Sanchez, the priest at St. Elizabeth's, sent a letter to the planning commission urging its members to oppose immigrant detention centers. "For an immigrant community such as McFarland, this troubling contact would mean constant fear of ICE presence in the area," he wrote.Before Tuesday night's planning commission hearing, Ramirez was teary and worried. Fiddling with the embroidered cloths that she had made to cover the tortillas on her kitchen table, she said, "If ICE comes to McFarland, I guess we could go to Oregon or Washington. There are farm jobs there."By the time she arrived outside the chambers, sun shades over her eyes, she was motivated and leading the crowd of 300 in protest chants.Across the street, about 30 GEO employees from an immigration detention center in Adelanto hoisted white posters in a counterprotest. "Please save our jobs," said one. "GEO is here to stay," said another."ICE is just picking up people who committed crimes," said Aaron Juarez, a detention officer at the Adelanto facility.Inside the chambers, GEO executives, who declined to be interviewed, occupied three rows of chairs on one side. Speaking on behalf of the company's proposal, David Venturella, a senior vice president, referred to "outrageous claims" that ICE would step up enforcement in McFarland.In other California cities where GEO runs immigrant detention centers, including Adelanto and Bakersfield, "ICE doesn't conduct neighborhood sweeps," he said.He said the facilities would employ more than 300 people, with entry-level officers making about $96,866, compared to the $34,474 paid to entry-level prison employees. The city would receive $511,000 in community-impact payments from the company, he said.He said the company also planned a number of "enhancements" at the facilities, including changes to the fencing, a decorative wall, visual barriers, new street lighting and sidewalks.The detainees would consist of men and women who had recently been apprehended at the border or by law enforcement in the interior of the country, he said, and would not include migrant families.But most city residents appeared unconvinced.Several predicted that McFarland would turn into a "ghost town."Stefani Davalos brandished a box stacked with cards that she and others had collected. "We don't want GEO here. We want colleges and to pursue our dreams. We don't want to live in fear," she said.After the 2-2 vote that under planning commission rules meant failure for the motion, company executives walked out of the chambers and declined to comment.On Wednesday, the company suggested that it would ask the City Council to review the planning commission's rejection. "We look forward to presenting to the City Council on the important benefits of keeping the Central Valley and Golden State facilities open," the company said in a statement.It appeared that Cantu, the mayor, would not be around to review it, in any case. His resignation, after nine years as mayor, was to be effective Friday."The city is in a position for a lot of great things to happen, or for its possible demise," he said. "I have done as much as I could."Outside the council chambers Tuesday night, residents erupted in cheers over the planning commission's vote."The community made a big difference," said Rudy Nuez, a commission member who voted against the plan."We are a tight community," said Ricardo Cano, who also voted no.The other commissioners left without discussing the matter further.Outside, the crowd erupted in chants of, "Si se pudo," or "Yes we could.''Ramirez, in tears, said, "I'm happy for my people."She stepped aside and called her husband, who was out of town. "I am so proud that the people supported us," she told him. "We won. I wanted to tell you, my love. Good night."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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