Update 12/8/22: The Biden administration has now appealed Judge Sullivan's ruling, backtracking yet again on their promises to protect asylum rights. While the outcome of the litigation is not yet clear, the administration's decision increases the odds that Title 42 will remain in effect past its currently-scheduled end date.

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Shut Down Etowah Campaign Demonstrates the Power of Solidarity

A deep commitment to justice helped shut down one of the most notorious detention centers in the United States.
Members of the organization holding a banner and posters

By on September 28, 2022

There are now 300 less spots available for detaining immigrants thanks to UUSC’s partner, Shut Down Etowah. Based in Alabama, the Shut Down Etowah (SDE) campaign fought for more than seven years to end the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract with the Etowah County Jail, and their success is part of a trend towards ICE ending detention contracts once severe violations of human rights are publicly exposed in particular facilities. Ultimately Shut Down Etowah and UUSC believe that all immigration detention is wrong and should be ended and see these focused campaigns to end the use of some of the worst facilities as a strategy towards complete abolition of immigrant detention. 

Shut Down Etowah worked closely with people detained inside the facility to document violations of human rights, particularly during and related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Etowah was typically used as a long-term detention site for immigrants with complex cases, resulting in an unusually large number of those detained being there for over a year, even several years. Immigrants in detention at Etowah assert that they were sent there to distance them from their families and legal and community support. Additionally, Etowah County’s costs were among the lowest per diem price per ICE bed, turning it into a warehouse for immigrants with complex cases. Because of the low turnover, however, SDE was able to establish trust and strong relationships over time to support organizing on the inside. 

Many immigrants who passed through Etowah also worked with SDE to draw attention to their personal story and fight for their release. Once the contract was ended, they successfully advocated for those still detained to be released instead of transferred, and out of the 300-bed facility, only eight to 10 immigrants were sent to other detention centers. Volunteers remember one specific release support campaign for a Muslim Jamaican man named Karim, who had been living for in New York since he was a child. In a collaboration with New Sanctuary NYC, SDE hosted a national call-in and a simultaneous protest at the detention facility and in New York, where Karim’s mother attended, and live streamed between the two actions. Karim had taken the lead on multiple protests inside Etowah with other immigrants. Upon hearing the news of the win, Karim stated, “This is the place where I was placed in solitary confinement for two months all because I asked to be tested for COVID. This is the facility where I contracted COVID due to unsanitary conditions and lack of care for human life.”

In addition to documenting abuses, Shut Down Etowah held regular protest actions outside of the facility, including banner drops in the summer of 2021 and a Beloved Community Interfaith Vigil during the 2021 holiday season. They also hosted national phone call-in campaigns to raise awareness and mobilize opposition nationally during key moments, such as the winter when Etowah would not turn on the heat despite the severe cold. Along with their national sign-on letter this year to ICE calling for the contract’s termination, these actions finally drew the needed attention to put an end to the abuses. 

Shut Down Etowah is one of UUSC’s “engagement partners,” a small set of grants that UUSC distributes to support on-the-ground organizing locally with Unitarian Universalist involvement. UUSC’s engagement grants for immigrant justice support a variety of projects and campaigns focused specifically on shutting down detention centers and providing visitation and post-release support for those who are freed. Other current immigrant justice engagement partners include Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention (LA-AID), Desert Support for Asylym Seekers (DSAS), Conversations with Friends in MN, Unitarian Universalist Justice AZ (UUJAZ), and Immigrant Action Alliance in FL.

UUSC is part of Detention Watch Network’s Communities Not Cages coalition, which named Etowah among the “First 10” detention centers targeted for shut-down campaigns based on the severity of conditions there. The end of the ICE contract at Etowah marks the 10th termination of an immigration detention contract (at least) since the beginning of 2021. Contracts at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia and Bristol County Detention Center in Massachusetts were both terminated in May, 2021 by ICE following campaigns by local organizers and people in detention there, documenting the severity of abuses occurring inside. For more information on the national Communities Not Cages campaign, click here

Photo Credit: Shut Down Etowah 

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