JACKSON—As Hurricane Barry threatened to flood their city, New Orleans residents Sarah Bechdel and Rose Falvey fled to Jackson last week. The storm, it seemed, had put a damper on their plans to attend a pro-immigrant protest in the Crescent City, to stand against the Trump administration's policies and its use of Louisiana prisons to hold migrants.
On the eve of the storm, though, Bechdel and Falvey found themselves standing outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Jackson, each holding sign with the words, "Close the Camps."
They joined several dozen protesters, some holding a large yellow sign with the words, "Immigrants Rights Are Human Rights"—an echo of the phrase, "Women's Rights Are Human Rights."
Private Org Opening Detention Center in Natchez
Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, or MIRA, President Bill Chandler wants to stop the opening of a second migrant detention facility in the state.
"We are here to draw attention to the detention centers. We are appalled at what is happening, and we know that is going to begin happening here in Mississippi, because they are moving the Adams County Correctional Facility from the bureau of prisons to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and they're increasing the bed count to 3,000 over there. And that is part of the continuing struggle that immigrants are having when they come to the U.S. and seek asylum."
Private prison corporations run the Federal Bureau of Prisons' 11 contract prisons. "The majority of BOP inmates in private prisons are sentenced criminal aliens who may be deported upon completion of their sentence," the Bureau of Prisons website states.
The Trump administration has rounded up hundreds of thousands of immigrants over the past year, placing them in crowded camps, often with poor care. ICE has entire camps filled with thousands of children whom the government separated from their parents, and some have been there for months.
ICE began using Mississippi's Tallahatchie Correctional Facility to house detained migrants in February. At the Adams County Correctional Facility in Natchez, Corrections Office Catlin Carithers died amidst a riot in 2012 that injured 16 other staff members and three prisoners.
Soon, though, ICE will start housing immigrants at the Natchez facility premises as part of a contract with CoreCivic, a private company that saw a significant bump in its stock market value after Trump's election. The Obama administration began to phase out the use of federal contracts with private prison companies, but the Trump administration has renewed that practice.
'We Should Be Horrified'
Brenda Chambliss, a MIRA attorney who came to the July 12 protest, criticized "family values" politicians for standing by or supporting the Trump administration's policies.
"Where are the family values that everyone is speaking of? Where is the humanity? Where are these children? These questions need to be asked over and over again because we're not getting answers. No one is being held to the standards and the values that they claim to have. I am really, really concerned with these children. We have private entities that are holding them in concentration camps—and that is exactly what they are being held in," she said.
"We should be horrified by this as a country. We claim to be the example for the world; I don't see that. And the behavior and the manner in which we're dealing with this situation, there is no humanity. There is no accountability."
Indivisible Jackson Progressive Salon and Indivisible Jackson Metro, two local offshoots of the national progressive activist group Indivisible, organized last week's protest. It came ahead of ICE's planned weekend raids on immigrant communities in cities across the U.S.
Justin McCreary, a minister from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, called on people to speak out.
"We call upon those with an inkling or a feeling in their soul to take up your fists, to take up your voice, to take up your heart, to speak in love so that we can end this crisis of faith, of spirituality in a humanitarian nature," he said.
Thompson Blames Trump Policies for Chaos
In the past year, multiple children and some adults have died in the custody of federal agents. In December, Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who now chairs the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, blamed Trump.
"While the Department of Homeland Security is scrambling to adhere to the Trump Administration's unilateral, radical changes to our immigration system, another young child has died in our government's care," Thompson said after 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died in government custody of flu, after doctors misdiagnosed him with a common cold, on Christmas Day.
Border patrol agents apprehended him and his father for entering the country illegally just miles away from an El Paso border crossing on Dec. 18. They were seeking asylum after fleeing their home country of Guatemala. Four more children have died since, bringing the total to seven since 2018. Before last year, no child had died in border patrol custody in almost a decade.
Since late last year, most immigrants whom border agents detained were children or families who said they were seeking asylum after fleeing persecution in their home countries. Though refugee families can legally apply for asylum at ports of entry instead of crossing the border illegally, the Trump administration has made that increasingly difficult.
Last year, the administration began turning asylum seekers away from ports of entry and telling them to wait. Just miles from the El Paso port of entry, where agents apprehended Felipe and his father, hundreds of refugees have been waiting for months in Ciudad Juarez.
"With the safest crossings clogged up, crossing through wilderness is the quickest way into U.S. care," Vox reported in December. "It also raises the risk of not making it that far."
In June, a viral photo made those dangers clear. It showed an immigrant father Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his almost two-year-old daughter, Valeria, lying face down on the bank of the Rio Grande River. They drowned while trying to cross into the U.S.
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].