As the race to the White House enters its most crucial lap, one labor activist is looking to the candidates to explain why there are children behind bars in Texas.
While Jaime Martinez, founder of the César Chávez March for Justice was in Washington D.C. last week for the LULAC elections, he took the opportunity to ask senators Barack Obama and John McCain about the immigrant families locked away in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas. He wants to know, he says, what the next resident of the White House will do to stop the incarceration of children as young as 7. Since 2006, the former prison has been under a private contract with Corrections Corporation of America to house illegal immigrants seeking asylum. Roughly half of the prisoners are children.
Martinez, who was reelected national treasurer of LULAC, has been trying to close the Hutto center since last year, when a LULAC member in Austin tried to deliver teddy bears to the children but was turned away because the guards didn’t know what was “inside” the toys.
Now that the Hutto center has reached its second year in housing non-criminal immigrant families, what is the most compelling reason that keeps you fighting against it?
The families. The concept of a family in America has deteriorated with the immigration debate. `The debate is` criminalizing hardworking people who came to this country seeking the American dream `and who` are being scapegoated for the economic condition in America.
So do you think that prisons like HUTTO show how America doesn’t appreciate its immigrants?
The racist system in America thinks only the Europeans that came to this country as immigrants contributed to the building of America, which is false. They were our lands. We had, like my grandmother who came at the turn of the century and crossed the Rio Grande, contributed also to the building of America. Their children were fighting for democracy in World War II and were decorated. A lot of these people, a big majority of them, are fighting in Iraq. Young generations are fighting in Iraq. The first one that was killed in Iraq was an undocumented. They are very patriotic, they are people not without names and they have a human face. They like the same things you and I as Americans like. They want vacations. They want a good education for their children. They want to buy a home. They want to have a good job to support their families and children. And they are living in the ghettos because of this draconian legislation in this country that have scapegoated not only the undocumented, but us, the people that look like or sound foreign with racial profiling. City ordinances `are` being passed by racist politicians that make is difficult for people to work, rent a house, make a living, and support their children.
On that same note, what would you say to people who think these families are illegally entering the country and should be treated as if they committed a crime and not be allowed to go free?
I would say that history is repeating itself. There was a law that was wrong that said ‘All Blacks have to go to the back of the bus.’ Rosa Parks said enough is enough, I’m a worker, I’m tired, I’m a human being, I’m not going to the back of the bus, arrest me. And that law was challenged. I believe the same thing here, that that law is wrong, we need to change it. We should not criminalize hard-working immigrants that contribute billions of dollars to the economy. Money is being taken away from them and being used to supplement the social security of America. They do not receive any of those benefits. They pay taxes. That law is wrong.
So then what is your view then on the argument that immigrants are taking American jobs?
That’s a myth. It’s a myth that the majority of immigrants come here to have babies and have welfare. The majority of people on welfare are white people, and those are statistics. They already have jobs that people don’t want: in the fields, manual labor, in the hot sun, cleaning restrooms, servicing hotels, cooking in restaurants. Those are jobs that are needed in America. The people that put food on the table are people that `some` claim are taking their jobs. The undocumented are the same people that are feeding America. Those are myths.
Considering that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement spends $2.8 million monthly on Hutto alone, why do you think this costly system still exists?
It’s a business. Prisons for profit are a business. The more people that they detain, the more resources they get and the more prisoners they arrest, the more prisons they will build. They are building more prisons focusing on comprehensive immigration reform to really bring all of those hardworking immigrants out of the shadows and into the real reason they came here seeking the American dream.
Even with the large amount of money CCA receives, Hutto has been under a lot of pressure because they had really bad education systems for the captive children. Have you noticed any improvements?
I remember the first press conference we gave with LULAC. We got a call from a member in Austin who tried to deliver toys to Hutto, I was not aware of the Hutto penitentiary. When the member tried to deliver these toys to the children at Hutto, they were denied. The children were deprived of these toys because `the guards` didn’t know what was “inside” of those teddy bears. `Our Austin members` gave us a call, we did some research, and did the first press conference in Texas to expose this prison for profit that was detaining immigrants from Latin America. There are children in that penitentiary that are only allowed a couple of hours of education, a couple of hours to play in the sun and then they had to come back into those cells. They have uniforms. It reminded us of Nazi Germany, how the Jewish people we escorted to concentration camps little by little. Here in America, we’re not going to let it go to that extent, but when you have a child behind bars that’s wrong. No child should be behind bars, that’s trauma for the future. That’s something you will never forget. How can a child forget that their parents are being detained for not having documents? Just because you put a curtain and a lamp doesn’t make it a home. You can put lipstick on a Doberman Pincher and it’ll still attack you.
So on your recent visit to Washington DC to meet with the presidential candidates, what issues did you bring up?
I’m a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. If we have comprehensive immigration reform, we should allow `immigrants` to apply for citizenship because they have contributed so much to the economy. I do not agree that they should have to go back to their country. Can you imagine someone telling his wife that they have to go to Mexico City to reapply for citizenship? How can someone afford to go to Mexico City when they can hardly pay their rent? We must address a fair pathway to citizenship that would bring the millions of people out of the shadows. I think we should address and close the prisons for profit. We should take the children out and put them in homes where they can have a good education. They are American born children and they should be treated as Americans with a constitutional right.
When you talked to Senator Barack Obama, what did he say?
He said in his first year as president he will bring immigration reform to the very forefront and that he will not run away from the issue if it gets politically uncomfortable. That’s the key. I asked him about Hutto. I looked him straight in the eye, and said, ‘I’m from Texas, there are prisons for profit that are holding families who do not have any documents. There are American children who are behind bars because Homeland Security put them there.’ He said, ‘I will address that issue as soon as I get elected President. We’re going to take care of those issues.’ He was very serious on the fact that he would make a change in immigration during his presidency.
And did you get the same feeling from McCain?
I asked him the same question and McCain said, ‘I cannot address that right now, until I become President. But that issue is not an issue that has a lot of support.’
That’s all he said?
What about the millions of immigrant workers and families in America? Are they not support?
He said he won’t address it until people start pushing the issue. But right now he can’t do anything about it. There is not question in my heart and those that heard Obama speak that he is speaking to the bread and butter issues that we need to change in America.
So do you think as the Latino community begins to rise and become more and more important in voting, do you think issues like Hutto will be brought to the forefront?
Definitely. We made `Hutto` an issue with LULAC’s press conference, now there are many organizations all over the United States supporting us. Our people are the largest growing population in America. We are making a difference and that’s why `candidates` are courting us. I believe that’s also why they are making it so difficult to get citizenship. They don’t want us to vote. The want to make it so difficult for us to become citizens and for us to vote, because once we vote, we’re going to have a brown-faced president in the United States in the future.
So what we are seeing with Hutto and immigrant criminalization is like the Jim Crow laws?
Yes. Those laws are racist and deprive people of their rights. No taxation without representation. So once we have legal taxation, we’re going to have legal representation, not only in the school boards, but in state legislation to governors to the Presidency of the United States.