On the Cold Front Lines of ICE Resistance

Paying witness to immigrant detention in Tacoma.

On a cold, soaking late-February afternoon, several hundred people huddled around a clutch of tents and tarps outside the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma—a prison for undocumented immigrants who’ve been arrested by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). The rain did not let up, even for a moment; the tarps gathered so much water that they’d periodically dump an Ice Bucket Challenge-style deluge on some poor, unsuspecting attendee, and though lead organizer Maru Mora Villalpando repeatedly urged everyone to move in closer, to get as many wet people as possible under cover, dozens more stood shivering beneath the open sky.

A lot of very dedicated activists were there that day, with one main goal: to support, in whatever way possible, the people detained just a few hundred yards from where the speeches were taking place.

The 2017 People’s Tribunal was the second annual such event organized by the all-volunteer NWDC Resistance, an activist group that coalesced in 2014 as a way to support the detainee-led hunger strikes at the Northwest Detention Center that year. Most of what the group does now is a continuation of that: a way to follow the lead, and support the needs, of the people trapped inside a facility that many organizers say is worse than prison.

“The people inside right now, they are counting on you,” Villalpando told the gathered crowd. “You are responsible now to them. You have an accountability to them.”

The day was filled with stories of grossly inadequate medical care—one man almost died from a cancerous tumor the size of a football, after waiting months for a single doctor’s appointment—as well as inedible food, exorbitant commissary prices, retaliatory solitary confinement, and a litany of other abuses, from laundry soap that causes full-body rashes to a lack of pads and tampons for menstruating women. One panelist, Komalpreet Sahota, said a woman she spoke with during the facility’s visiting hours that day told her “she has to argue again and again with the guards” for access to such things. “She didn’t want to go into it, but she said they’re not kind.”

“We have the power to judge the immigration system, instead of them judging us,” said Villalpando to whoops of applause. “As immigrants, we are here to judge them.” The testimony heard that afternoon went to support the conclusion of a panel of eight: The NWDC and the entire immigration system violates human rights. The resulting document was delivered to lawmakers in both Olympia and Washington, D.C.

While NWDC Resistance is part of the national #Not1More campaign—an effort to, ultimately, end all deportations and detentions—much of what group members do these days are small, human gestures. Volunteer Wendy Pantoja says that the most important thing she does, most weekends, is visit people in detention. Many who are brought there don’t have family nearby, and some remained detained for years; “Imagine the isolation, and the desperation,” she says. Especially in those cases, but also when any detainee calls the 1-800 number the group provides, volunteers visit and listen, as a kind of moral support. (However, just as in a maximum-security prison, in-person visits can happen only over the phone, through glass.) A friendly face and a willing ear are, nevertheless, for many detainees, among very few antidotes to despair. “We’re trying to feel the people, hear the people, and express what the people say,” Pantoja says.

Many of the events that the group holds—which have included human blockades to physically prevent deportations, as well as monthly “solidarity days” and Know Your Rights workshops—take place right outside the detention center, “to tell the people inside that ‘We are outside and we are here to support you,’ ” says Villalpando. If they cheer loud enough, the people inside can sometimes hear. “And sometimes we can hear them,” says volunteer Naomi Strand. During the group’s most recent Dia de los Muertos event, last October, “It was late at night, and we started hearing singing—people singing inside.”

Though people like Strand and Pantoja and Villalpando devote a significant chunk of their lives to this work, none are paid for what they do. The vast majority of the donations that NWDC Resistance receives goes toward depositing cash in detainees’ commissary accounts, so they can buy shampoo, coffee, and more palatable food. The group also puts money on phone cards so that people can call their families. Volunteers sometimes connect detainees with legal representation, too, or pass messages to the attorneys already representing them. Strand is an attorney, though she doesn’t specialize in immigration law (yet); she says it’s often her role to pass messages to attorneys and make deposits. “I generally get a text with someone’s name and number,” she says, and then she moves money from the NWDC Resistance bank account to various commissary accounts. Like Pantoja, she will often visit people to “help them not be so alone and cut off from things,” but also to help them figure out if they have any legal recourse regarding their living conditions and treatment. Perhaps not surprisingly, “The grievance process is not great,” she says.

Sometimes, NWDC Resistance raises thousands of dollars in a short time to support those whose cases allow them to be released on bond; other times, cash donations will go toward people who are definitely being deported, but who need something as simple as a bag to put their things in. The group also runs a pen-pal program to help connect detainees and volunteers via handwritten letters.

The new federal climate has certainly created an explosion of fear, and of interest in the work they do, organizers say. Since November, many more people have shown up at the group’s monthly solidarity days, many more are interested in the pen-pal program, and the number of donations has shot up, too. But according to Villalpando, who has been doing this kind of work for many years, the immigration detention system was just as stringent under the Obama administration. “This is not new,” she says. “The difference is [President Donald] Trump doesn’t care. He’ll just put it out there, with no filters.”

Still, she says, there have been clear differences recently. More families are calling her, saying their loved one has been detained; there are more stories of overcrowding at the facility, and more frequent deportations. And of course, no one doing this work will complain that what’s long been on their conscience is now being widely recognized across the country as both crucial and profound.

“Resistance is in our name—that’s what we’ve been doing,” says Villalpando. “I’m glad that people are now agreeing with us.”