Robert Ray/Al Jazeera

Protesters rally across U.S. for immigration reform

Thousands gather in day of action urging Obama to scale back deportations of undocumented immigrants

Thousands of undocumented immigrants and their supporters rallied across the United States on Saturday as part of a national day of action called “Two Million Too Many" – activists’ latest effort to urge President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to scale back deportations.

Protesters gathered outside government offices and detention facilities where undocumented immigrants are transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation.

Organizers said the campaign was prompted by the Obama administration’s record deportations, which are anticipated to hit the milestone of 2 million removals since he took office.

Halting deportations is necessary, advocates say, because many of those in detention could one day benefit from eventual reform. 

In Atlanta, protesters told Al Jazeera correspondent Robert Ray that the Latino community is bearing the brunt of a failed immigration policy. "You don't see Canadians being deported in numbers. Why is the Latino community being persecuted?" said Paulina Helm-Hernandez, co-director of rights group Southerners on New Ground. "We are calling on President Obama to save hard-working families so that generations of people can help America."

In Washington, D.C., on Saturday, families of undocumented immigrants vowed to maintain an indefinite presence at the White House until Obama stops deportations and reunites them with loved ones currently held in detention. 

While Obama has largely blamed Republicans for the deadlock in immigration reform, advocates insist that he can use his executive authority to halt deportations. “The president could simply expand the deferred action program he created for immigrant youth and suspend deportations immediately,” Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of the group Latino Advocacy, told Al Jazeera.

Along with calling for a halt to deportations, activists also gathered to show support for detained hunger strikers in Washington state and Texas who were protesting their detention as well as conditions at the facilities where they are held, Villalpando said. “The strikers want more sanitary food and better pay for the jobs they perform in confinement,” she said, accusing the private firm that runs the facilities of exploiting detainees for their labor.

"GEO pays detainees about $1 a day for performing services that include working in the kitchen and janitorial work," Villalpando said.

GEO Group Inc., which calls itself the world’s leading provider of correctional and detention services, lobbied Congress last year on immigration reform even though it said it would not, according to The Nation.

However, GEO contends that it’s lobbying focused solely on the government’s existing Alternatives to Detention program, which the organization says it supports.

“Our discussions with lawmakers have been aimed at educating decision-makers on the benefits and successes of the Alternatives to Detention Program since our company’s wholly-owned subsidiary, BI Incorporated, is in fact the primary service provider of community supervision services under the core program of Alternatives to Detention,” Pablo E. Paez, vice president of corporate relations for GEO Group told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement Sunday.

The Alternatives to Detention program calls for community-based programs that allow individuals to be released from detention. 

Villalpando also accused ICE officers and GEO officials of retaliating against hunger strikers in Tacoma, Wash., at the Northwest Detention Center – which houses nearly 1,300 people being investigated for possible deportation – by placing some of them in solitary confinement.

In response to the actions taken against strikers, Villalpando said that lawyers on Wednesday filed a temporary restraining order and an injunction on behalf of about 20 men being held in solitary confinement.

Those men have since been released, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington and Columbia Legal Services, who announced Friday that the men were returned to the facility’s general population by Friday morning after six days in solitary confinement.

GEO Group has denied engaging in any form of retaliation against detainees. 

“Our company strongly refutes the allegations related to the Northwest Detention Center,” Paez said Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that one of the few House Republican proposals aimed at allowing some undocumented immigrants to become legal residents was blocked Friday by a powerful committee chairman.

The proposal, which offered legal status to young undocumented immigrants serving in the military, will not be included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, said House Armed Services Committee Chairman "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif.

Advocates say the decision further diminishes the odds of any immigration reform proposal passing in the Republican-controlled House this year.

With wire services. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that GEO Group had lobbied Congress last year on immigration reform, standing against the Alternatives to Detention program. A spokesperson for the company said GEO had actually lobbied for the reform.

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