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Putting Their Lives And Livelihoods On The Line To Protest Immigration Policy

Putting Their Lives And Livelihoods On The Line To Protest Immigration Policy

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

No aspect of the Trump presidency has prompted the level of outrage, ire, frustration, devastation, and desperation as his treatment of people who did not happen to be born here. Among the marches, human chains, donations, boycotts, and tweets, one group of protesters has not received as much attention: detained migrants. “To regain agency and draw attention to their plight, hundreds of detained migrants have staged hunger strikes, in at least seven different detention facilities across the U.S,” writes philosophy professor Candice Delmas in the French newspaper Liberation.

Last year, approximately 60 migrants launched a hunger strike at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, demanding to be reunited with their children, and better medical care. They were also expressing solidarity with a nationwide prison strike against exploitation of labor among prisoners. In March of this year, 24 migrants initiated a hunger strike at the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, Louisiana, to protest their prolonged detention (according to activists, the number of participants is closer to 150). On July 9, five asylum-seekers from India who have been detained for about a year began a hunger strike in New Mexico. They are demanding release and a chance to have their cases meaningfully and properly adjudicated.

“Subjecting their bodies to the agony of starvation is one of the few things in detained migrants’ control,” writes Delmas, whose scholarship focuses on civil disobedience. “A hunger strike may help alert the public about the detainees’ plight, shame the authorities, and obtain some concessions from them. But whether or not the hunger strike succeeds at doing these things, it is a powerful indictment of the inhumane conditions the migrants are made to endure, and of the state’s unfulfilled responsibility to care for them. In refusing food, the hunger strikers highlight and reject the degraded existence they have been reduced to. They affirm their own dignity against those who deny it, constructing themselves as agents, paradoxically, through self-destruction.”

Within the system, too, those who are ordered to create these conditions of suffering have been wrestling with divided loyalties: to their consciences on one hand, and to their jobs on the other. One immigration judge, a former advocate, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “I knew when I joined the bench that there would be frustrations, as immigration courts are governed by the Justice Department and lack the independence of other courts in the federal judicial system. But nothing prepared me for the unprecedented, unfair and unworkable policies the Trump administration imposed on the courts and the immigration process.” Explaining why she felt compelled to resign this month, Ilyce Shugall writes that various factors convinced her that the people coming before her could never receive a fair shot: a 700-case yearly case quota; a limit on interpreters; the decision to disqualify those fleeing domestic violence and other nongovernmental violence from asylum claims; and the “remain in Mexico” rule, among others.

“I expect the Trump administration’s relentless attacks against immigrants and the immigration system to continue,” Shugall writes. “The way to limit the damage is to establish an independent immigration court that is outside the Justice Department. Until that happens, the immigration courts will be subject to the politics driving the administration rather than the principles of justice immigration judges are sworn to uphold.”

It seems somewhat less meaningful that the immigration judge who resigned was one of the few who represented immigrants before becoming a judge, but Shugall was hardly alone. In February, BuzzFeed News reported on Rebecca Jamil, a former ICE prosecutor who became an immigration judge and retired under Trump. “I can’t do this anymore,” she told friends. “I felt that I couldn’t be ‘Rebecca Jamil, representative of the attorney general’ while these things were going on.” By “these things,” Jamil was referring to family separation and other cruel policies. She was one of many judges to do the same. “While some, like Jamil, have resigned,” BuzzFeed reported, “others have retired early in large part because of the policies instituted under Trump. The quotas in particular have made judges feel as if they were cogs in a deportation machine, as opposed to neutral arbiters given time to thoughtfully analyze the merits of each case.”

Just today, ProPublica published an article about a former ICE attorney who began working to defend the migrants she once prosecuted.

Last year, Antar Davidson made headlines by resigning his position as a youth migrant shelter worker in Arizona. Davidson was the only shelter worker able to communicate with a group of Brazilian siblings in Portuguese. They had been separated from their mother and were forced to sleep on a floor their first night, after which they were told to go to separate rooms. “So they grasped each other and they were just wailing and really crying. And the younger siblings were like, ‘Please, I don’t want to be separated from you,’” Davidson told CBC radio last summer. “The shift leader came over very aggressively and told me, ‘Tell them they can’t hug each other!’ And I at that point told her, ‘No. As a human being, I can’t do that.’ … And at that point I realized that if I was to stay in this organization I would be having to basically take orders to do things that were against my morals.”

As principled people put their bodies and salaries on the line to protest immigration policy, some worry that those who remain will be the least principled. A suspicious job posting for a doctor to work at an immigrant detention facility in rural Louisiana recently drove home this very point. The listing promised a salary of $400,000 for a doctor with just two years’ experience and no board certification. The main requirement, it appeared, was that the person be “philosophically committed to the objectives of this facility.” On NPR, Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine and a member of Physicians for Human Rights, said that it “was a very, very specific example of what we call in medical ethics dual loyalty,” which she described as “a potential conflict between clinicians’ duties to their patients and their obligations to their employers.” The dual loyalty, between a person’s conscience and their job requirements, is what causes judges and shelter workers to resign. To Mishori, that listing was “really very concerning—even chilling.”

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