US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal speaking at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project about the legislation she and Rep. Adam Smith have introduced to end mandatory detention and private immigration detention centers.
US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal speaking at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project about the legislation she and Rep. Adam Smith have introduced to end mandatory detention and private immigration detention centers. SB

It's rare that electeds make a direct link between grassroots activism and a policy they're pushing. But today, during a press conference held at the offices of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, US Representatives Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal cited immigrant-led hunger strikes as something that bolstered support for a bill they're proposing that would end private immigration detention center contracts with the Department of Homeland Security.

"Pure and simple, it raised awareness to how awful it was," Congressman Adam Smith said.

Ana Sofia Knauf (who sadly is no longer at The Stranger) covered those hunger strikes—in which immigrant detainees and undocumented supporters refused food in order to demand better access to medical care and more—earlier this year.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who noted that these kind of protests have been ongoing for more than a decade, said: "Without activists doing hunger strikes, raising on the streets the issue, putting real people in front of the American public, you would not be able to get the attention, because so few people understand immigration, period. They don't understand it's a civil system."

Both Congressional representatives also cited a 2008 study conducted by OneAmerica, the immigrant rights organization founded by Jayapal, and the Seattle University School of Law on conditions at the Northwest Detention Center. The study, which alleged "violations of international law and due process violations," as well as overcrowding, inadequate access to medical care, and inadequate treatment of the mentally ill, was the first of its kind.

The proposed Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would overhaul the immigration detention system as we know it, end mandatory detention policies and institute a set of minimum incarceration standards agreed upon by the American Bar Association.

Support The Stranger

Both Smith and Jayapal acknowledged that the pathway for getting such a piece of legislation passed in the Republican-controlled Congress would be, well, a major challenge. Smith, however, said that the first step to pushing the legislation is awareness—and Jayapal suggested Homeland Security budget appropriations as another place where key aspects of the bill could survive.

"I'm not going to lie, it's a very, very tough uphill battle, but I believe as an organizer that what we have to do is really elevate the issue, build support across the country," Jayapal said.

Jayapal said that she had been meeting with first-term Republican representatives to talk about the cost implications of privately-run immigration detention centers, too. "Just like with our mass incarceration system in the country, the reality is we are spending billions of dollars on these detention facilities, and it is significantly, ultimately, we believe, cheaper for the taxpayer if we begin to introduce alternatives to detention."