ACLU-WA is in court to fight for free-speech rights of detained immigrant

Friday, September 7, 2018

Immigration detention centers are not Constitution-free zones, no matter who operates them

A federal court will hear oral arguments today in a lawsuit the ACLU of Washington filed to uphold the free-speech rights of an immigrant being detained at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma. NWDC is owned and operated by the GEO Group, Inc., the nation’s second-largest private prison corporation, which detains people awaiting their immigration hearings under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Guards at NWDC assaulted Jesus Chavez Flores, seriously injuring his eye, and forced him to endure solitary confinement in retaliation for his participation in a peaceful hunger strike protesting conditions at the detention center.  The cruel treatment Mr. Chavez endured is a clear violation of his First Amendment rights, the lawsuit asserts, and part of a nationwide pattern of intimidation and retaliation by the Trump administration.

The GEO Group’s attorneys have argued that because GEO is a private contractor, they should not be held responsible.

But because the GEO Group has taken on a responsibility that is exclusive to the federal government, it can be held responsible for ensuring that a detained person is not deprived of their fundamental rights under the Constitution. 

“An immigrant detention center cannot become a rights-free zone simply because it is owned and operated by a private prison corporation. The GEO Group has made millions of dollars in profits from their contracts with ICE, and cannot use this as a shield to evade their responsibilities to detainees,” said Eunice Cho, staff attorney at the ACLU of Washington.

On February 7, more than 120 immigrants housed at the NWDC began a hunger strike to protest inadequate food and the wage of one dollar per day paid to them for cooking, cleaning, and otherwise maintaining the facility, among other concerns.

“I participated in the hunger strike because I've seen the injustices that people here in detention have faced,” said Mr. Chavez.

The Washington state Attorney General is among those suing GEO and ICE over the wage issue. NWDC continues to be the site of hunger strikes and protests within the facility over poor conditions. Support for the hunger strikers has been organized by Northwest Detention Center Resistance, a grassroots organization which for many months has had a presence outside NWDC.
The decision to place Mr. Chavez in solitary confinement was based on false disciplinary charges and made by GEO Group administrators, with the approval of ICE supervisors and without following required procedures. His disciplinary hearing was held without Mr. Chavez receiving written notification in Spanish of charges against him, and without him being present or having a chance to speak. For twenty days, Mr. Chavez spent 23 hours a day in an isolation cell and is permitted to shower only three times a week.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to bar Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the GEO Group from retaliating against Mr. Chavez for exercising his free speech rights. The suit further seeks a declaration that Defendants violated Mr. Chavez’s constitutional rights, and damages for assault and false imprisonment. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington in Tacoma.

ACLU-WA Legal Director Emily Chiang and Staff Attorney Eunice Cho, and Daniel Weiskopf and Theresa DeMonte of McNaul Ebel Nawrot & Helgren PLLC, are representing Chavez.