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Eduardo’s prolonged campaign to stay in the U.S.

Eduardo Samaniego was deported today after three months of fighting for his freedom. 

By Brian Zayatz

On the morning of February 1st, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center announced that after a nearly three-month highly publicized campaign for freedom, detained member leader Eduardo Samaniego would fly back to his native Mexico after being pressured into “voluntary departure” by federal immigration Judge William A. Cassidy.

In October 2018, Eduardo was arrested outside Atlanta, Georgia after getting lost on a run and hailing a cab without his wallet on him. Though the situation could have been easily remedied after reuniting Eduardo with his wallet, or allowing him to contact a friend to borrow the money, the driver called the police, and Eduardo was arrested over a $27.75 cab fair. The charges were dropped later that evening.

In Massachusetts, cooperation between ICE and municipal police is often kept quiet, or is done only tacitly through the sharing of databases. In Georgia, police held Eduardo on ICE’s behalf even after the debt was settled. Interactions with police are one of the fastest ways for undocumented immigrants to end up pursued by ICE, no matter what part of the country—just ask Lucio Perez, a father of four who has lived in Springfield, Massachusetts for decades, now in sanctuary in an Amherst church after becoming a target due to a 2009 arrest for running into a store for a moment with his children in his car.

Undocumented immigrants like Lucio who are active in their communities and vocal about their stories become targets for ICE, and the federal agency is quick to seize any opportunity to get organizers into their custody. Eduardo was quite a catch for them: in the last year, he walked 250 miles from New York to Washington, DC to demand a clean DREAM Act from congress, broadcasting this action to his thousands of Twitter followers. Eduardo has never been shy about sharing his own story: attending high school in Georgia while battling homelessness, eventually becoming student body president, finding himself unable to apply for financial aid for college without a social security number, and ultimately ending up at Hampshire College with a full scholarship. Throughout his time at Hampshire, Eduardo has worked on national and local campaigns to improve the security and quality of life of immigrants in the U.S., becoming a fixture at rallies and an advocate and friend to fellow undocumented students. Though we shouldn’t have to rely on narratives of the exceptional or extraordinary immigrant to justify the need for humane policy, there is no question that both of these adjectives apply to Eduardo.

Hundreds of miles between Eduardo and his PVWC coworkers and the structural and political differences between the two states’ immigration courts have made it challenging to assist Eduardo in this time of need. Since Trump’s election, the Atlanta metropolitan area has tripled its arrest rate of non-criminal undocumented immigrants—the fastest leap of anywhere in the country—and has seen a nearly 120% increase in deportations. Compared to the nationwide average, immigrants in court in Georgia are about 20% more likely to face a deportation order.

On December 27th, Eduardo was denied bond despite hundreds of letters collected by the PVWC attesting to Eduardo’s good moral standing, lack of risk to public safety, and low likelihood of flight. Scheduled for the week of Christmas, and moved up with less than one day’s notice, it’s difficult to read the court’s treatment of the hearing as anything other than a tactic to catch Eduardo’s counsel and supporters unprepared. Following the hearing, Eduardo was moved to Irwin County Detention Center, a facility widely recognized as one of the worst in the country, whose closure has been called for by activists and human rights groups. Although the facility is owned by the county, Irwin is run by the for-profit LaSalle Corrections company—a company whose Director once conceded that “you need occupancy to be high” in order to turn their desired maximal profit from human caging. Irwin County Detention Center is located in remote Ocilla, GA, three hours from Atlanta, which further strained Eduardo’s connections with his community in Georgia and his ability to access legal counsel. LaSalle runs the site at a profit by exploiting the involuntary labor of its inmates, who report a lack of response or resources to keep the facility at a minimum of acceptable sanitation as well as inedible and often rotting food. Though detainees are only paid $1 a day for their work, commissary prices for basic necessities, as well as pricing for phone calls, are exorbitantly high. Abuse at the hands of guards is well documented.

Perversely, the facility’s response to any concern over detainees’ mental health or safety in general population is placement in “segregation,” or solitary confinement. In the exhaustive report “Imprisoned Justice: Inside Two Georgia Immigrant Detention Centers,” detainees described segregation as windowless 23 hour-a-day confinement with little, if any, access to recreation, commissary, phones or other resources. The report notes detainees have been placed in segregation as a punishment for complaining about conditions or as a precaution upon reporting suicidal thoughts—a particularly cruel alternative to treatment that exacerbates mental health issues. Eduardo spent several weeks in segregation where he was not allowed anything but paper clothes and was forced to eat without utensils. After activists highlighted the deterioration of Eduardo’s health in frequent phone calls to ICE’s Atlanta field director, Sean Gallagher, he was finally transferred to the Columbia Regional Care Center in South Carolina, a for-profit mental health facility that contracts with ICE.

This would hardly be the first time ICE has taken extra care to silence, abuse, and fast-track deportation proceedings of vocal activists. In 2017, two Vermont activists with the group Migrant Justice, Jose Enrique “Kike” Balcazar-Sanchez and Zully Palacios, were surveilled for weeks and eventually stopped while leaving the group’s office. Describing the experience, Balcazar claimed that agents referred to him by his nickname, and declared “I’ve brought you a famous person” upon arriving at a detention facility.

Initially, Balcazar’s bond was set at $14,000, and Palacios denied bond altogether, despite neither of them having criminal records. Over the course of their detention, the two were moved around the Northeast with little notice and only summoned to hearings by remote video, limiting contact between them and their community. Through intense public pressure including letter writing and rallies across multiple states, Migrant Justice was able to secure their release. The PVWC has had success with similar campaigns for detained organizers in the time since President Trump took office, but the president’s executive orders prioritizing detention, as well as ICE’s particular strength in Georgia, caught Eduardo in a perfect storm.

On Friday, January 25th, Eduardo appeared in court in Georgia via remote video for a hearing in which he elected for “voluntary departure,” an agreement to self-deport within 30 days, and waived his right to appeal. Because he was not physically present in court, his lawyers did not have an opportunity to meet with him before or after the hearing—a tactic deployed by immigration courts nationwide, but particularly favored by Judge William Cassidy, who presided over Eduardo’s case. Cassidy overruled numerous objections by Eduardo’s legal team, who considered the practice of remote video hearings especially dubious and a denial of due process given Eduardo’s vulnerable mental state.

“Immigration judges are supposed to be unbiased, neutral fact finders,” says senior supervising attorney to the Southern Poverty Law Center Daniel Werner in a March 2018 report. “Our findings show that judges in the Atlanta Immigration Court seek to intimidate those who appear before them, block their access to fair representation, and prevent those who do not speak English from understanding what is happening in their cases.” ICE, and the federal government more broadly, have assembled a torturous system that leaves valued members of American communities like Eduardo to make a choice between deportation and potentially lengthy periods of incarceration while legal battles develop. While being detained, a person might experience more human rights abuses and denial of due process. If all goes well, a stay of removal could be granted, which would involve perhaps years of more uncertainty as politicians debate and negotiate one’s right to a peaceful, secure existence. During these years, a person would be unable to visit family until some kind of stable immigration status is achieved. Judges knowingly leverage the difficulty of sustained legal battles and the personal costs of the fight for freedom against detained immigrants, who, like Eduardo, have often committed no crimes.

Given Eduardo’s coercion to choose between these apparently bleak options without proper legal counsel, his support team, including his lawyers, PVWC staff and his mother, spent the weekend deliberating on options for appealing his agreement to voluntary departure. In this time, it became clear, according to a statement released on the day of Eduardo’s departure, that “Eduardo’s only option to be free from the horrors of incarceration” would be to follow through with his voluntary departure.

On January 31st, PVWC staff, along with Eduardo’s mother, Maricela, attempted to visit Eduardo at the Columbia Regional Care Center, but were denied access and threatened with removal from the property. “This is a rogue agency,” they wrote in one of the Facebook live videos they posted of the incident. While waiting for Congressman McGovern, who credits Eduardo for pressuring him to call for the abolition of ICE, to contact the director of the facility, the support team was surrounded by five police cruisers who blocked their exit. One of the supporters at the scene, Caroline Murray, reflects that as much as it has been ordinary people who have supported Eduardo—nearly 15,000 of whom signed his petition and 703 raising over $27,000—it has also been ordinary people who incarcerated him, from those in the video who intimidated his supporters to those who escorted him to the airport, keeping him in custody until he boarded the plane.

Using some of the funds raised, the PVWC flew Maricela and Lorena Moreno, a worker leader for the organization and friend, to meet Eduardo in Guadalajara, a city eight hours from Eduardo’s hometown where ICE sent him with no money or even clothes.

“For many years I have advocated for the civil rights of the most vulnerable in our country,” wrote Eduardo, from detention. “I have experienced the shortcomings and inhumanities of our immigration system in mind, body and spirit, but I sincerely never imagined the extent of the inhumanities committed against immigrants in our prison industrial complex… This prison industrial complex has robbed me of my physical health, it has violently damaged my fighting spirit, and it continues to open my mind to see too many inhumanities… My dreams and hopes – that took years to form fighting in the streets for universal healthcare, access to education, and amnesty for all immigrants – are still inside and they burn with a passion.”

PVWC staff write that “Eduardo will continue to explore his options for appeal and permanent relief outside of detention while in Mexico.” On Monday, February 4th, the organization’s Sanctuary in the Streets project will dedicate its monthly general assembly to holding space for sadness and rage and commitment to next steps in the fight against an unjust immigration system. The assembly will take place at 6 PM at the Parlor Room in Northampton.

Brian Z. Zayatz lives in Amherst and is a volunteer organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.

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