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Health Over Punishment: Organizing Efforts to Stop ICE Transfers in California and Beyond

San Quentin State Prison, Marin County, the site of the site of one of the largest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in a prison. | Frank Schulenburg/Creative Commons License
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Editor's note: The authors of this article lead community public health advocacy efforts at their respective organizations. Amber Akemi Piatt is the Health Instead of Punishment Program Director at Human Impact Partners and Yadira Sanchez is a Program Strategist at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance.

This summer, Chanthon Bun was scheduled to be transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon his release from San Quentin State Prison, the site of one of the largest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks at the time. He was experiencing symptoms of the virus. Outside the prison walls, his family, immigrant youth, health workers, and allies joined together to fight for his freedom, and on July 1: we won. As far as we know, Bun is the first person whose ICE transfer has been successfully stopped by a community defense campaign. Because of the dedicated work of community organizers, he was instead allowed to board a bus home to his family and community.

For decades, immigrant youth and families have been building power and working to advance health equity across California. For organizations like our own, Human Impact Partners (HIP) and the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance (CIYJA), this work extends beyond election seasons: social justice movements are year-round commitments. In the absence of any real support from the federal or state government, immigrants in the state have created mutual aid networks and community defense campaigns rooted in love, resistance, and interdependence to keep each other safe. 

Watch "<a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Power &amp;&nbsp;Health</a>," a documentary examining how race, wealth and power impact people's health in a very direct way.
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As we await Joe Biden’s inauguration as the next President of the United States, advocates and organizers like ourselves must take stock of how the Democratic Party has — and critically, has not — taken decisive action to promote the health, inclusion, and safety of immigrants across the country. If California’s Democratic supermajority and the powerful grassroots movements that have risen in its wake give us any insight into what is to come, then we have both words of hope and caution.

We draw hope from the power of coalition building and community organizing for health equity. On the heels of Bun's homecoming, a groundbreaking story in The Guardian about Kao Saelee — a formerly incarcerated firefighter from California who was transferred to ICE — went viral. In the days following, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Jeff Merkley introduced federal legislation to stop ICE transfers. Ultimately, our communities cannot wait for legislators to take action for health equity — and, sometimes, our actions force legislators to take action themselves.

A critical part of our work is to strengthen social and political alliances with communities, campaigns, and social justice movements. Yet for many reasons, including restrictive funding structures, our campaigns are too often siloed. Community organizers can be forced into focusing exclusively on health, immigration, or incarceration — rather than seeing how these issues are inherently interconnected. As our movement elder Audre Lorde reminds us: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We understand that structural racism and xenophobia co-conspire to diminish power in Black, Brown and immigrant communities, feeding the racial and health inequities we see today. As both a defensive and long-term offensive strategy, our organizations and movements have been intentionally building collective power across issues and communities. 

This fall, for example, we joined formerly incarcerated leaders, clergy and families who simultaneously dropped giant banners outside of more than 30 carceral facilities — including jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers — across California. The banners had messages like “Newsom COVID Death Camp” and “Governor Newsom, Emergency Releases Now! Health Over Punishment!” sprawled across them in giant letters. People joined their voices together to demand that the governor do more to protect the health of people who are incarcerated or detained, especially during the acute crisis of this pandemic. Outside of Golden State Annex, a recently closed state prison that has been taken over by ICE, allies read a written statement from some of the immigrants detained inside: “We repeatedly asked for hand sanitizer, face masks, and other sanitary masks — only to be told they are ironing things out as they go. They are exploiting us. Our detention is a death sentence.”

They, tragically, are not wrong. The pandemic has exacerbated an already dire situation: jails, prisons and ICE detention centers are hotspots for infectious diseases like COVID-19. There are currently COVID-19 outbreaks in all 34 state prisons. Research shows that COVID-19 infection rates inside ICE detention were over 13 times the rate of the general U.S. population for each month from April to August. This impacts surrounding communities as well: new research shows that nearly 114,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in communities across California are directly attributable to the persistent overuse of incarceration. Yet, despite espousing commitments to support immigrants, Gov. Newsom and other elected officials have failed to take appropriate and necessary action. Our experience in California is a cautionary tale to anyone who believes that Inauguration Day will inherently bring relief for all immigrant communities.

Faith leaders, activists and family members hold a public memorial in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in San Francisco to honor 17 people who died of COVID-19 while in prison or ICE detention. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Image
Faith leaders, activists and family members hold a public memorial in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in San Francisco to honor 17 people who died of COVID-19 while in prison or ICE detention. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Image

As an outward-facing tactic, our protests have helped build public awareness, apply political pressure to decision-makers, and create space for those who are most harmed by the criminal legal and immigration enforcement systems to tell their stories. Yet they ultimately constitute a tiny fraction of our campaign and movement work. Truth be told, our bullhorns get used far less than our Zoom apps. Most of what we do is behind the scenes — like monitoring what is happening inside carceral facilities, supporting currently and formerly incarcerated people with their material needs, creating resources for our campaigns, tracking what decision-makers are saying and doing on the issues, reshaping the dominant narratives, and meeting to strengthen our strategies, action plans, and relationships with each other.

For example, at HIP this year we spent months conducting research with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus and recently released a research report on the health impacts of transferring people to ICE upon their release from jail or prison, especially among Southeast Asian refugees. Despite declaring itself a sanctuary state, California continues this harmful practice that is the main driver of ICE detention — indeed, approximately 70% of people who end up in ICE detention nationwide are there due to an ICE transfer from jail or prison. Gov. Newsom has the power and executive authority to stop ICE transfers in California and keep families like the Pham siblings together by sealing up the key pipeline to ICE detention, yet he has refused to do so, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our people will not and cannot wait to be saved by politicians who need to be convinced of our inherent worth. We have the skills, tools and relationships we need to make change — even if only at a small scale, to start. Especially in light of the persistent shortcomings of even Democratic leaders, it is clear that our work to build power for health in Black and Brown communities is more crucial than ever. We will continue to push Gov. Newsom to halt immigration detention expansion and stop ICE transfers while getting ready to leverage new opportunities federally. As we push for transformative, structural change toward health, dignity and justice for our immigrant communities, we are uplifted by Chanthon Bun’s beautiful rallying cry: “Never give up hope, and keep on fighting.” 

Top image: San Quentin State Prison, Marin County, the site of the site of one of the largest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in a prison. | Frank Schulenburg / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

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