An undocumented immigrant interrupted Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton at an award presentation to Chef Jose Andres at the annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala in Washington, D.C. on Thursday night.
“Hillary, we’re watching,” 22-year-old Juan Carlos Ramos shouted as Clinton continued unfazed with her introductory speech about Chef Andres. “My deportation will be your funding.”
Ramos, a member of the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream Action, urged Clinton to stop receiving donations from the Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group, two of the largest private prison operators of immigrant detention facilities nationwide.
“Our message to Hillary Clinton is simple: immigrant youth do not trust you,” Ramos said in a press statement. “It is time to drop the prison money and stand with our community — you can’t have it both ways. Each dollar of private prison money accepted by the Clinton campaign undermines her pro-immigrant policy promises, and our community will not be fooled.”
Surrounded by undocumented immigrants at a campaign stop in Nevada earlier this year, Clinton aired her concerns about immigration detention centers, stating that private companies have a “built-in incentive to fill them up, that there is actually a legal requirement that so many beds be filled. So people go out and round up people in order to get paid on a per-bed basis.” She also recently criticized President Barack Obama’s deportation policies, saying they were enforced “very aggressively during the last six and a half years.”
Detention centers are designed to hold immigrants, both undocumented and legal, while they await deportation proceedings. These are people who fall into one of DHS’ deportation priorities, like those who pose a threat to public safety, national security, and border security. But an Immigration Policy Council report found that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) mostly deported immigrants who posed “a threat to no one.” In fact, only one in five deportees qualified for a “Level 1″ priority, a category that once encompassed crimes like murder and federal drug trafficking, but now has broadened out to include “theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court.”
Since 2007, the budget language related to detention centers has called for funding for “not less than 34,000 detention beds.” And since 2009, the Department of Homeland Security has allotted 34,000 beds in 250 detention facilities nationwide in the spending bill. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson suggested last year that the allotment wasn’t necessarily a mandate to hold 34,000 detainees at any one time, but rather a capability to hold that many.
Still, about 23,000 immigrants are held every night in private prisons, while roughly 62 percent of all immigration detention beds are operated by private prison operators, according to Fusion.
The government has poured $2 billion into for-profit private prison operators, but that money hasn’t seemed to improve detention facility conditions. At one immigrant detention center, detainees accused ICE officers of an ongoing “pattern of routine assaults,” intimidation, and inadequate medical care. And even in family detention centers designed for women and children, there have been a slew of complaints about bad food, poor medical treatment, with some mothers reportedly attempting suicide or going on hunger strikes. One former employee described a family detention center as “a prison.”
Ramos’ disruption, while brief, is just the latest in an emerging trend as people of color and people from other disadvantaged groups publicly confront lawmakers over broader calls for criminal justice reforms.
For example, immigrant activist Jennicet Gutiérrez — a transgender woman — interrupted the president’s speech during a LGBT Pride reception in June to bring awareness to the issues faced by LGBTQ immigrant detainees. Those immigrants are arguably worse off in detention because they often suffer in silence. Between October 2009 and March 2013, 40 percent of sexual assault allegations went unreported by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in detention centers, a Government Accountability Office report found. Some facilities place LGBTQ immigrants in administrative segregation, really solitary confinement, ostensibly for their own safety. But when transgender women are housed in men’s detention facilities, they are subjected to bullying, lewd comments, and sexual assault.
Black Lives Matter protesters have also interrupted Clinton, along with her Democratic presidential rivals Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, to ask them to address police violence and racial disparities in policing. And for the activists, their disruptions are personal. “I think a lot of the critiques are absent of the fact that we are fighting for our lives,” Tia Oso, the national coordinator of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement, told ThinkProgress‘ Kira Lerner in August.