July 19, 2021

Migrant Incarceration and the 1985 El Centro Hunger Strike


In 1945, United States immigration officials opened the El Centro Immigration Detention Camp in El Centro, California, to be an administrative holding center for unauthorized Mexican migrants, many of whom had been working on local farms and ranches. From the beginning, migrants were often detained for long periods of time while they served as the unpaid labor force of the center.

Conditions were poor in the facility in the decades that followed, and in 1985 the incarcerated migrants (by this time a multinational group) decided to strike. On May 27, 1985, fifteen detained men stormed the mess hall, inspiring somewhere between 175-300 more men to join them. The group refused to work, to go inside, or to eat until their grievances were met. Their complaints included inhumane conditions in the 120-degree heat of the Imperial Valley, poor food quality, inadequate medical treatment, lack of entertainment, physical abuse, psychological intimidation, solitary confinement, and threats of violence.

The strike was put down forcefully by the El Centro Tactical Intervention and Control Unit, in full riot gear. Although some of the conditions that led to the strike improved, rampant violence and inhumane treatment continued.

In this episode, Kelly briefly tells the history of the El Centro facility and the 1985 Hunger Strike, and interviews Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Jessica Ordaz, author of The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash.

Transcript available at: https://www.unsunghistorypodcast.com/transcripts/transcript-episode-7.

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Transcript

Kelly:

This is Unsung History, the podcast where we tell the stories of people and events in American history that haven't gotten much notice. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then interview someone who knows a lot more than I do. Today's story is about migrant incarceration and solidarity in the Imperial Valley of California. In 1945, United States immigration officials opened the El Centro immigration detention camp in El Centro, California. The structures used in the construction of the camp had been repurposed from Fort Stanton internment camp in New Mexico, which had been used during World War Two, to house captured German crewman and briefly Japanese Americans. The original purpose of the El Centro camp was to be an administrative holding center for unauthorized Mexican migrants, many of whom had been working on local farms and ranches. The camp was intended to be a temporary facility, temporarily housing migrants until they could be deported to Mexico. From the beginning that detainees were forced to work both on the detention camp itself and on the projects throughout the Imperial Valley. And in practice, migrants were often detained for longer than 30 days, while they served as the unpaid labor force of the center. Instead of closing after the three months it was originally designed to be open, the camp remained open and expanded in 1948 to triple the capacity. Between the 1950s and the 1970s the detention and deportation regime expanded as American immigration agents increased the policing of Mexican migrants along the US-Mexico border. The El Centro immigration detention camp was expanded again between 1971 and 1973 to house 632 migrants across four dormitories, and it was transformed into a service processing center in 1974. Even with the new construction conditions were poor, as was reported in the Mexican press, Chicano activists referred to the El Centro facility as a concentration camp where "prisoners were kept for months with no regard for their legal rights." In 1985, conditions were so bad that the incarcerated migrants, which by that time was a diverse group from many different countries, including 1/3 from El Salvador, decided to strike. This wasn't the first hunger strike at the facility, but it was the largest in the facility's history. On May 27, 1985, 15 detained men stormed the mess hall, inspiring somewhere between 175 and 300 more men to join them. The group refused to work, to go inside, or to eat until their grievances were met. These grievances had been worked out in advance. 84 prisoners signed a letter sent to attorney Graciela Zavala to inform her that they had attempted to report mistreatment to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). But after being ignored for months, they felt it was time to act. The strikers' complaints were: 1) the guards created an inhumane environment, including forcing the incarcerated migrants to stay outside all day in the heat of the Imperial Valley, which reached up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer; 2) the food was poor quality and insufficient, consisting of things like powdered eggs, beans and Kool Aid, and incarcerated migrants often had to line up in the sun two hours early, to be sure they got food before it ran out; 3) they received poor medical treatment or had their medical concerns ignored completely; 4) there was no entertainment in

the facility:

A small outdoor recreational area was poorly maintained, and they had no access to television or radio, or even to a library despite the fact that they were responsible for their own legal cases (since they were held on civil grounds, they were not entitled to legal counsel); and finally, 5) the incarcerated migrants complained of physical abuse, psychological intimate solitary confinement and threats of violence. On May 29, two days into the strike four strikers met with Robert C Rolls, the facility's acting supervisor. He concluded that INS could do nothing about the demands and refused to take responsibility for the guards actions at 6am. On May 31, the El Centro Tactical Intervention and Control Unit, a local component of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, entered the demonstration site in full riot gear and forcibly relocated the strikers indoors, dragging them kicking them and handcuffing them. By June 1, there were only eight strikers from six different countries remaining. On June 3, the strike ended when a local Lutheran pastor, William Koski, who was involved with the Imperial Valley Immigration Project, used his life savings to bail out the remaining strikers, shortly before guards would have attempted to force feed them. The US Attorney General presented a plaque to the immigration officials at El Centro for putting down the hunger strike quickly. The strikers themselves were isolated, cut off from legal counsel and transferred to other facilities. A congressional delegation visited the facility and found overcrowding and inhumane conditions. Although the INS Commissioner disagreed with the allegations, INS officials did begin allowing migrants inside during the day and a library was opened, funded in large part by the Mexican government. In 1987, INS issued its detention officer Handbook, which emphasized that detention was not punishment, but rather intended to "ensure the aliens availability for deportation proceedings or expulsion." And yet, reports from incarcerated migrants at the facility demonstrated that rampant violence in inhumane treatment by guards continued. In September 2014, the El Centro immigration detention center closed because of the high cost of running the outdated facility, despite workers' protests about losing their jobs. A new center, the Imperial Regional Detention Facility, run by prison contractor, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) opened 17 miles to the southeast in Colexio. The new facility was specifically designed so that fewer guards are needed for the population, thus saving money. To help us understand more about the history of the El Centro detention facility. I'm speaking now with Jessica Orsaz, Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of the 2021 book, The Shadow of El

Centro:

Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity, which was the major source for this introduction. Hi, Jessica, thank you so much for joining me today.

Jessica Ordaz:

Thank you for the invitation.

Kelly:

Yeah, so this book is a really terrific, it's a hard read emotionally, but I learned a lot. So I wanted to start by asking you just you know, what, what inspired you to write about migrant detention? and El Centro? You know, I this has come up in the news more recently, of course, during the Trump administration, there was a lot of talk about family separation at the border. And during COVID crisis, there's talk about overcrowding and things. But you know, it seems like prior to that, of course, there were scholars talking about it and stuff. But it wasn't something that the general public was thinking a lot about. So what brought you to this research?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah, that's a terrific question. So before I developed an intellectual interest in my incarceration, I had personal experiences with it that made it so that it was constantly on my mind. I am the daughter of migrants who came to the United States in the 1980s from Michoacn, Mexico. And so my own father for a period of time was apprehended, detained and deported. And just in my larger family, there definitely was social impacts when it came to the detention and deportation regime. And so having grown up with those experiences made it so that migrant incarceration was at the forefront of my mind. And when I entered the PhD program at UC Davis, I realized I wanted to explore this intellectually. So those things really coalesced and became the start of this project.

Kelly:

One of the things that you talked about in the book is the sort of difficulty of sources in a project like this, in these places that are, you know, meant to be at some points, actually temporary structures, but always meant to be, theoretically, at least temporary places for people to be these people are moving on, you know, the the archival sources can be difficult to obtain. So can you talk some about what, what that meant for you with that project looked like finding the sources you need, what sort of sources you were using? And just sort of take us through that?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah. And this is a great question, considering that I'm currently calling in from Mexico City working on a second project, which maybe we can circle back to, but ir reminded me because I hadn't been here in a few years of those difficulties when I was doing research for the project on El Centro, which is that I had a lot of hopes, I really hoped to find a lot of migrants who had been specifically incarcerated in the El Centro immigration facility. And I hoped for, like oral history to make up a big part of the project. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Which makes sense, like you said, this is a very heavy topic, it was difficult to have people come forward and to disclose that, you know, perhaps they're still undocumented, or they had been deported. There's a lot of shame associated with that, too. For those reasons, I didn't end up with a big pool of folks who wanted to be interviewed, who had been incarcerated in El Centro. So what I ended up doing was really following the archival trail, which took me to places like Washington, DC, like New Mexico, and definitely all throughout California. And in addition to that, I did interview quite a bit of lawyers and immigration rights activists to really try to flesh out the narrative that I tell in the book, but it ended up definitely shifting as I moved forward in in the research process, because I was asking people very difficult, you know, difficult questions and asking them to recall the difficult times, it was hard for me as a scholar to write about the horrors of detention centers. And so, of course, for people who have experienced this in their life, it was even that much harder. So I did have one person who I found in Los Angeles, who had been incarcerated in that facility in the 1980s. And his story was super helpful. And just sort of validated a lot of what I had already found in the archives. And so his story is documented in the chapter about transnational migrant politics. So that was a little bit of my journey.

Kelly:

Yeah, you just mentioned how hard this is, as a scholar. I wanted to ask about that, too. It's, you know, this is, as I mentioned, it's it's difficult subject matter. I, you know, as I was reading it, of course, I could put it down if it got to be too much, and then pick it up again. Now, what does that look like is a scholar trying to to tell this really important story. But, you know, it has to have an effect on you, as well as you as you hear about these horrors about what's happening.

Jessica Ordaz:

Absolutely, it was very challenging, in ways that I guessed, but not to like the degree right, like the degree of how challenging it was. I could have, perhaps taken more breaks. But instead, what I did is I sort of tried to push through and wrap up the project a bit sooner than I would have otherwise. And so it's a shorter book for that same reason. I, I felt like, it's short, but it's very heavy. And there was not necessarily a need to sort of have, you know, five more chapters on how violent detention centers are, I think I get that message across with what I have written. And so my tactic was to wrap up the project sooner rather than later, there were days where I would definitely need like I needed to step away myself from writing and so that made it particularly challenging and I just really had to prioritize self care. Always but especially when not even the writing but more like the close reading of the sources because they were all negative, even in moments where I talked about, write about, and was reading about resistance, the context is still migrant incarceration. And so I just had to be very cognizant of how I was feeling and how much I could handle any one day with the project.

Kelly:

Yeah, so, you mentioned a little bit ago, the the transnational migrant politics chapter. And so this is the same chapter that you're talking about the hunger strike at El Centro in 1985. So I wondered if we could unpack that story a little bit. So first, I guess just for listeners, what does transnational migrant politics mean?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah, so I came to this term to really highlight the fact that migrants who are incarcerated in any part of the carceral state come with their own lineages and legacies of resistance of protest of politics, etc. And I came to that which might sound obvious, but I came to that because in 1985, INS officials constantly said, you know that these hunger strikes were manipulated and planned by lawyers and not folks who are actually incarcerated. So not seeing them as active agents with their own struggles and ideologies. And I really wanted to highlight that because they're migrants, they're coming from, you know, places that have their own histories and strategies of resistance that then they utilize once they're incarcerated in the United States.

Kelly:

Importantly, of course, in this story, what is happening in 1985, is that, unlike the population of El Centro, going into this, which had been largely Mexican, although not exclusively, that suddenly in the mid 80s, there are all these migrants from El Salvador, from parts of Central America with a lot of violence. Can you talk a little bit about that history, why that happens, and what that means, what sort of situation they are coming from?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah, so the irony is that they end up in US Federal operated detention facilities, where they're filing for asylum. And at the time, only about 2% of folks, especially from El Salvador will gain political asylum. So most of them deported to their own deaths from places they're fleeing. And the irony is that, you know, they're fleeing. They're fleeing the consequences of Empire. And a big part of it is the US empire in particular, which is why I say it's ironic, they're causing these crises themselves. And so there's a lot of political turmoil throughout Latin America, but in particular, Central America, there's a lot of revolution and counter revolution, and coups. And this causes violence and war and unstable economies, all reasons why the Central Americans migrate to the United States during the end of the 1970s and 1980s. And so you see this, the shifts that you talked about demographically, in El Centro where for decades, most of the migrants were coming from Mexico, and then because of this increase in Central American migration, caused by in large part US Empire, those dynamics and demographics changed. And so, for example, in the 1980s, people from El Salvador, in particular make up, a majority of the men that are held at the El Centro facility,

Kelly:

This resistance and you talk in the book about several different kinds of resistance that happen, really, from the very beginning of this facility, people trying to run away, hunger strikes, you know, lots of different forms of resistance, but you know, what, what is the evidence of this that that these acts of resistance are happening? What does that tell us about what the conditions are like, you know, you talk some about this this sense almost of haunting and ghosts like you know, you have to find the the story what's happening in part by by looking around it. So, you know, what, what do we know about what must have been happening in the center, even if you didn't get to talk to everyone who was there, that leads to these kinds of acts of resistance, like this hunger strike?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah, running away. So in terms of like escape, I think what is really telling is in terms of labor. So I write at the beginning of the book about the use of incarcerated migrants not only to work within the facility, but to actually be driven out throughout the Imperial Valley and work in construction projects, as well as literally the back yards of different immigration officials. And so this is around the 1940s. And from the very start from the very like day one that the facility or at this time the camp is in operation, people are escaping and fleeing, which is not surprising, right? When someone's incarcerated, it's against their will. And so it makes sense that people would want to flee. However, what I find interesting is that the immigration officials termed the use of their labor as voluntary, right? Like they use them as literally legally a voluntary workforce, and they had voluntary work parties. But in fact, what I argue is that we see in the archive stories of Mexican migrant men literally escaping at every opportunity that they get, including when they're on these supposed work parties. So it really puts into question the voluntary nature, so much so that I call it a form of forced labor, right. They're literally escaping not only the poor conditions within the camp, but that the extraction of their labor. And so I think that that's something that that example of resistance reveals.

Kelly:

Yeah, it was interesting that in the 1985, hunger strike, that they actually had a list of demands. So they go through lawyer, they tried to give the demands directly to officials and get nowhere and have these various specific demands that of course, aren't met immediately, because the hunger strike is put down forcibly. But it sounds like it, although things of course, did not become perfect by a very long stretch that some of these things actually were then maybe taken into consideration that some of these demands were slowly over time, met in at least small ways.

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah, the most important one, I would think for the men who participated in that hunger strike was that, you know, for folks who listeners who are not familiar with the geography of Southern California, El Centro, is located in the Imperial Valley, and it is in the summer, very, very hot, and like up to 110, 115. So in 1985, the men who protested were not allowed to be indoors during the day at peak hot hours, they had to like queue outside, basically. And so one of their demands was to be let inside. And they did gain that which, you know, I say that it's complicated, and that ultimately, a lot of things stayed the same. And a lot of things got worse. And we can discuss that a little bit further. But for those particular men, that was huge, right to go from having to stand outside for five plus hours in 115 degree weather to be let in indoors where it was cooler. That was a very big win for them. Yeah,

Kelly:

Definitely. Can you expand a little bit on that? The the types of things like that, that did get a little bit better, but but things that actually got worse afterward as well.

Jessica Ordaz:

Right. So I think that surveillance actually gets worse, so much so that the El Centro immigration facility closes in 2014. And I say closes very loosely. What ICE then did was closed on the facility and reopen one in Colexio down the road and this one is fully privatized. It's coed and a big difference is actually they now have less guards than they had in El Centro for many decades. And the rationale according to a few immigration attorneys who I interviewed who work out of the Imperial Regional facility, the one in Calexico, they said that the idea is that they built the facility in a very intentional way so that they wouldn't have to hire as many guards and can just rely on the architecture of the center for surveillance and to keep detained migrants in pods. And so that's that's an example right of how immigration authorities have really thought through from 1945 when this camp and El Centro is very small, it's makeshift, the fence is wire mesh and people are literally escaping by digging under and jumping above to like 2021, where you now have this new facility down the road that is built in such a way that you don't even need to have a lot of guards because the very structure of the facility ensures that people are always watching.

Kelly:

One of the things that strikes you reading this, and you sort of talked at the beginning and then at the again, at the end about that is when this facility closes in 2014, that the people who live in this area in the Imperial Valley are so they're so tied to their employment, being part of this facility, that they're going to lose their jobs, that they're not thinking the way that you writing this or thinking the way that I reading this and thinking about the cruelty of the center, you know, they're thinking we're gonna lose our jobs, there seems to be such a disconnect there. Is that part of sort of the, the the system as it's built, like the the whole carceral system, throughout this country, you know, do you see a connection there?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yes. And I actually have a really great example, from when I first started the research I was able to do, I was able to take a tour of the central facility before it closed in 2014. And there was a Latina ICE agent who, who gave me that tour, and I remember asking her questions like, when did this facility open? Or, you know, like, how does this work? Or how is it operated? And it just reminded me, I think, with a lot of institutions, that employees, workers, laborers are often doing like a small part of the work of the entire system. So she actually didn't know how to answer any of those questions. And she seemed genuinely interested, like, I don't know, you know, why we do x or y or z. But when I mentioned that there had been a hunger strike, for instance, in 1985, she's like, Oh, actually, that makes sense. Because in our, like, when we do trainings, they talk about like hunger strikes, and how to like, you know, make sure we smash them down as quickly as possible and things like that. So I kind of interpreted her general lack of information about what was going on in the facility is like, very intentional from like, a systematic sense, right? Like, it works in the system's benefit. So that employees are doing a small part of the repression so that they're not getting the full picture, right? Like, I'm sure if this one agent read the book, she would probably be surprised by a lot of what's in there, because she doesn't necessarily know that history. And that's intentional. And by design, I believe.

Kelly:

Yeah, I want to ask about this idea of deportation. So it seems like a lot of what is done in in these facilities is to try to convince people to self deport, that instead of waiting around to to see if their asylum claim goes through that they should just go back where they came from. And you talk some in the book about what that actually looks like when they actually are deported, where they go to what happens to them. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. And why that is a choice that people would not want to make, even in the face of these horrible conditions in these centers that they don't want to go back don't want to be deported.

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah, historically, and even today, like people flee for very many different reasons, not always war and violence. But if we're talking about the Americas, at least, in the last few decades, that is very much the case. Right. And so I do talk a little bit about the 1980s, and number of folks from El Salvador who were deported, and then like, literally, like would be decapitated and murdered. And so a lot of them are fleeing, literally, death threats. And so even though they're experiencing very violent conditions, and that detention center, I think the idea that they might be able to get asylum or might be able to stay in the United States is like this hope that they hold on to whereas if they're deported, and it is the case where they their lives have already been threatened, like they know what they're going back to. And so there's the sense of like, well, maybe, you know, this might be worth it. If I can get asylum if I can stay in the United States, which is the goal. But unfortunately, that rarely happens.

Kelly:

Yeah, and I was so horrified to read about the idea of deporting people back, yes, maybe to a country that they know, but to a city they don't know at all, or they need to walk very far to get anywhere where there's even civilization with maybe no money with it with no resources with no connections in this place. You know, I think that was something that had never occurred to me like what what being deported actually meant?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yeah.

Kelly:

So is there anything else that you want to make sure that we talk about?

Jessica Ordaz:

I guess I will just say that I think an important part of what I try to untangle are the functions of migrant incarceration. And so a lot of scholars have started to write about the rise and like, how did we get, you know, from detaining a couple 1000 people across the country to the hundreds of 1000s of people, we now detain, which I think is a super important question, and I, I address it a bit. But really, what I think I was interested in understanding and grappling with is like, what is the function like, Who does this benefit? Why do we have this detention and deportation system that is utterly violent, and in the case of my book, I've charted how decade after decade after decade, you know, I personally don't believe in reforming the the system because I was able to trace that violence and it doesn't diminish. If anything, this just becomes smarter, right. And like in the example of surveillance, they respond to the resistance of migrants, and they become more repressive and more quick to smash any type of dissent. And so I really want to leave listeners and readers of the book with that question for people to grapple that with them, like amongst themselves, like, what is really the function like, how is this useful in any way?

Kelly:

And can you tell me a little bit about your new project? And will it be at all more emotionally? Or less emotionally difficult, perhaps?

Jessica Ordaz:

Yes, so, I'm actually like I mentioned earlier in Mexico City doing some of the preliminary research on my second project, which is about intersectional veganism in the long history of plant based foods in the Americas. And so yes, I think it will be lighter, emotionally, but not not without its own challenges. And of course, I'm still interrogating things like capitalism and colonization and cruelty against animals. So there's definitely still a thread there of violence. But yeah, I already feel even just in the preliminary research that it is not as heavy as as my first project was.

Kelly:

Yeah. Well, I am excited to read that a few years down the road. And in the meantime, I will put a link to the Shadow of El Centro in the show notes, and I really do encourage people to read it. I think it is, you know, while a difficult read emotionally, of course, it is s important, and I really learne a lot.

Jessica Ordaz:

Thank you, Kelly.

Teddy:

Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at UnsungHistoryPodcast.com. To t e best of our knowledge, all a dio and images used by Unsung H story are in the public d main, or are our used wi h permission. You can find us n Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung _History or on Facebook at Uns ng History Podcast. To contact u with questions or episode sug estions, please emai Kelly@UnsungHistoryPodcast.com If you enjoyed this podcast, ple se rate and review and tell your friends.

Jessica Ordaz

Jessica Ordaz is an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. She received her doctorate from the University of California Davis in American History. During the 2017-2018 academic year, Ordaz was the Andrew W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, which focused on comparative racial capitalism. Her first book, The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity, was released in March 2021. Her second project will explore the multifaceted history of veganism and plant based foods throughout the Americas, focusing on colonization, food politics, and social justice. This research will illuminate the wider and transnational history of Latinx veganism and how communities of color have engaged with questions of animal, human, and plant relations for centuries.

Ordaz is also the Veggie Mijxs Denver Metro Co-organizer. The goal of the collective is to center women, non-binary, femmes, and trans BIPOC while providing a safe place for folks to explore decolonization and plant based food justice. Read more about Veggie Mijxs here: https://www.veggiemijas.com/meet-the-organizers