Students protest ICE contract

Nicholas Tucker, News Editor

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Samantha Cabeza

Local immigration advocates have been protesting on and off the Ellensburg CWU campus for over a year against a contract between the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The contract allows the sheriff’s office to house ICE detainees at the Kittitas County Corrections Center before sending them to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. 

This contract between the sheriff’s office and ICE was outlawed by the Washington State Legislature in May when the Keep Washington Working Act was passed. Under the act, the county must end the contract by December 31, 2021, but many pro-immigrant demonstrators expressed hopes that Former Kittitas County Sheriff Gene Dana would cancel the contract before retiring in October. However, Dana announced his intention to uphold the contract.

“We’re bound by federal law to comply with laws set by Congress,” Dana said to Northwest Public Broadcasting. “I’m kind of stuck in the middle — federal law, congress saying ‘this is what you need to do and here’s the guidelines, and we’re complying with them.”

Sheriff Clay Myers who succeeded Dana has stated that under his leadership the contract would remain in place until a different decision is made on the federal level. This is in an effort to maintain consistency between the immigration enforcement policies of all levels of government.

“Our federal government, our state government, our local governments are supposed to work together that’s why we have public representation and when they work together, things usually work pretty well,” Myers said to The Daily Record. “If they’re battling, all it does is create a greater venue for the bad guys, and that’s where our concern is.”

In reaction to the continuation of the contract, CWU students are protesting every Wednesday in front of the Kittitas County Courthouse. Sheila Avila is a leader of the protests and one of the co-presidents for Movimiento Estudiantil Chinana/o de Aztlan (MEChA), a national organization which promotes the unity and empowerment of Latinx students.  

“It’s not right to have this [contract]. I know two students personally who have been affected by this contract already, who have been in the jail and that have been detained by ICE,” Avila said. “It’s really hard to try to help students who are in these situations when the university has no protocol to deal with that, and it just wouldn’t have happened if we just didn’t have that contract.”

Students and local immigrant support groups are working together on these demonstrations as well as other action of resistance towards ICE. In addition to the protests, Avila and her MEChA peers are hosting workshops for undocumented students to help them know and exercise their rights. One of the allies of MEChA in the protests has been Justice for our Neighbors. 

“We’ve decided to partner up with Central Washington Justice for our Neighbors, which is a group of immigrant attorneys here in Ellensburg,” Avila said. “They’ve been doing this for a while now. They go out in front of the courthouse and just do vigils for immigrants in our community who are affected by this contract that the sheriff has with ICE.”

According to Todd Milton, board president for Central Washington Justice for our Neighbors, the organization is a nonprofit legal clinic which provides legal services to low-income refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. The Central Washington branch has offices in Ellensburg and Walla Walla.

“The focus has been to bring attention to the cruelty of the Trump administration’s immigration policies with a real focus on family separation,” Milton said. “There’s a fear and uncertainty that has affected everyone across the country, and Ellensburg hasn’t been safe from that. We know that people are afraid to go to court, afraid even to go into public sometimes.”

The protest on November 13 was one of the largest that MEChA and Justice for our Neighbors has staged, in large part due to the Supreme Court hearing on the same day which has the potential to shut down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The court has yet to announce a decision and the deadline for doing so isn’t until June 2020, but that didn’t stop protesters from demonstrating. One such protester was Dr. Susana Flores, a CWU professor in the College of Education and Professional Studies. She said that this is a personal fight for her.

“I came from Mexico when I was 9 years old. We came as a documented immigrants,” Flores said. “Getting an education was really hard because you don’t qualify for federal financial aid, you don’t qualify for most scholarships. I’ve had students with perfect grade point averages that can’t go on to pursue a professional degree, or who couldn’t finish their careers at [CWU].”

Sheriff Myers has responded in the past when concerns have been raised about the connections between the sheriff’s office and ICE.

“There are tragedies involving enforcement of immigration and there are tragedies involving lack of immigration enforcement,” Myers said to The Daily Record. “Both have resulted in torn up families, both have resulted in violence, both have resulted in crime. We certainly don’t want to be painted with the brush that we simply don’t care about the families of immigrants because we do. We care about families of everybody and we want to treat them all with respect and with accordance to the law. We’re not political. We’re public safety.”