YAKIMA, Wash. -- Inmates banged on the walls loudly enough to be heard clearly and consistently from the sidewalk outside, as a group of about 50 immigrants-rights demonstrators chanted in front of the Yakima County jail Sunday.
The demonstrators, mostly teenagers and 20-somethings from all over Washington state, marched six blocks from the Red Lion Hotel where many had attended a three-day convention hosted by the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. Their stated purpose was to demand an end to the county’s intergovernmental service agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and arrange the release of 42 inmates they had identified as being held under that agreement. But the protest, which drew dozens of supportive honks from drivers on Yakima Avenue as well as one shout of “Go back to Mexico,” was also a symbolic one.
No one seemed terribly surprised when the jail staffer on the other end of the intercom button declined to release any inmates or declare an end to the county’s cooperation with ICE. The county’s Department of Corrections has a long-standing working relationship with ICE officers.
Nevertheless, the marchers gained public attention for their cause and offered vocal solidarity with those being detained.
“We’re making sure our voices are heard and that we get this experience out there in rallying,” said Graciela Nunez, a Seattle-based political organizer who works with the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. “What matters is that the inmates inside hear us and hear our chants and hear that there is a community outside fighting for them.”
Carolina Silva, a Pullman resident and Washington State University student, addressing her fellow protesters outside the jail, emphasized that Yakima County’s cooperation with ICE isn’t mandatory. The county, she said, is profiting from its intergovernmental service agreement, viewing ICE inmates more as money-makers than people.
“Our families are worth more than ICE dollars,” she shouted, eliciting cheers.
In addition to their stated demands, the protesters used the event as a platform to share stories about how U.S. immigration policy has hurt families. Jesus Policarpo, a WSU student who immigrated with his family seven years ago, spoke about how his father and mother — a doctor and nurse in Mexico, respectively — fled threats of violence only to find a different sort of oppression in the United States.
“It doesn’t feel right that people like me, people who have left their families — that have fled their country due to violence that is a life-and-death situation — it’s not right that they’re being held for profit and nothing else,” Policarpo said. “It’s not right that they can make money off of the people that have tried to come and find another way to live and to provide for their families.”
Monserrat Padilla, a Seattle-based coordinator with the network whose mother was deported 10 years ago, recalled broadcasting her high school graduation to Mexico via Skype so her mother could see it. They haven’t seen each other in person since they were separated and don’t know when or if they’ll be able to.
“We’re here because I am tired,” Padilla said. “I am so tired of receiving those morning calls where a mother is crying after her husband was torn from her, or a desperate child who doesn’t know where their parents went because they didn’t make it home. Every day at our hotline we receive hundreds of calls from people who are getting lost in the deportation machine, who are ending up in places like this county jail. ... That’s not OK. That is not dignity. Our communities deserve dignity and respect.”
The demonstration ended with a pledge to keep applying pressure.
“We’re going to continue carrying this energy,” Padilla said. “Not only here in Yakima, but across all Washington state. From Spokane to Vancouver to Skagit County to Pullman to Walla Walla to Tri-Cities to Wenatchee to Seattle to Wapato to Mattawa. All Washington state will know what we’re here to do, which is fight for our families, to share the dreams of our families, because we deserve dignity. And to any local county or local city government that continues to choose to collude with immigration, we say, ‘Enough. We see you, and we’re coming after you.’”