It's true. Pramila Jayapal, who launched her campaign to represent Seattle's 37th District in the Washington State Senate last month, hasn't eaten anything since 8 a.m. Eastern time—that's almost twelve hours.
Why? "It's a travesty," Jayapal tells me by phone from a tent near the White House. "If a [immigration reform] bill were to be brought to the floor right now, it would pass. It’s the speaker and a small minority of people blocking that from happening, and meanwhile the president is continuing to deport people across the country."
So she's launching, along with Estela Ortega from Seattle's El Centro de la Raza and Gilda Blanco from Casa Latina and hundreds of others nationwide, a 48-hour fast to pressure both Speaker John Boehner and President Obama to bring immigration reform up for a vote and stop deporting people at record levels, respectively.
I ask if she's getting hungry, but Jayapal brushes my question away: "It’s just a small thing for us to do. Whatever hunger pains you have, just swallow them up," she says. "Because there’s something bigger at stake. We’re at a place where people are taking moral actions to demonstrate the crisis."
Jayapal says she's been inspired by detainees on hunger strike at Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center—20 of whom were released from isolation last week after the ACLU filed for an injunction to block alleged retaliation against the detainees.
An average 177 people get deported every hour, she continues. "We’re here to say enough is enough." And the New York Times adds fuel to the fire today with a searing investigation that shows how the Obama administration has reneged on promises not to deport ordinary, non-criminal immigrants—people "who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families," to quote the president. In fact, those people make up two-thirds of the nearly two million deported under his watch.
Jayapal is fasting because of people like Jose Martinez, who I met on Saturday standing in the rain outside the drab Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, during a demonstration in solidarity with the hunger strikers. He has no criminal record, but spent sixteen months locked up inside.
- Courtesy of Alex Garland
- Anna, Jose, and Eliana Martinez.
For Martinez, Seattle is home. He's lived here for about 17 years now and his six-year-old daughter, Eliana, was born here. Why did you emigrate here? He answers bluntly, "For a better life." Then he talks about endemic drug violence in Mexico.
Before his mother in Puebla passed away, he went back to visit her. But on his way back, he got caught and was ordered deported, then released. On his daughter's birthday in 2012, immigration agents seized him at his workplace—the Cheesecake Factory restaurant in downtown Seattle, where he bussed tables. "They came inside and they said, we want to talk to you," he remembers. "One of them came in and pushed me out, then they took me."
He spent the following sixteen months behind bars. "I came in on Wednesday. They said by Friday, you can be gone. They said, you don't have to sign anything, you're already deported." But he applied for asylum, he says, and while the application was processed he was kept in jail—helping fill the government's immigration detention bed quotas.
As NYT notes, the Obama administration "set out to keep deportation numbers up" when it came into office in a bid to look tough while negotiating comprehensive immigration reform. "Immigration officials set a goal of 400,000 deportations a year—a number that was scrawled on a whiteboard at their Washington headquarters."
I asked Martinez what it was like inside the detention center. "Horrible." He doesn't say much more, except that some of the officers are decent people and "some of them are assholes." Jose's wife Anna jumps in and explains that her husband became ill and had to take anti-depressant medications while inside.
And then she gets angry, while we huddle under their yellow umbrella. "They're breaking up our families. They don't know what we go through. They don't know our kids," she says. "Because literally, I had to lie to my kid and say, 'He went to Mexico to see your grandma.'"
"They hurt our kids," she continues, her voice cracking with emotion. "They grow up thinking it's fine that you're locked inside, when it's not fine. That's why we bring her here, so she knows what it's about. So she knows what he has gone through and why we lied to her."
- GEO Group-branded deportation buses and vans.
Behind the fences, I notice vans and buses used for deportations bearing the logo of the GEO Group, the private prison company that runs the detention center. Martinez was released last June, and as he continues to contest his deportation order, he's working as an Assistant Manager at a McDonald's in Burien.
Final word? Martinez says the detention center should be shut down, since most of the people inside are innocent. His eyes flash with determination and he adds, "I'm going to keep fighting until I get my legal status." If Jayapal and her fasting cohort in D.C. have anything to do with it, that day will come sooner rather than later.