Maria-Jose “Coté” Soerens is the founding executive director of Puentes, an immigrant-led organization mobilizing mental health resources for immigration justice. A new immigrant herself, Maria-Jose was born in Chile and has made Seattle her home, where she lives with her husband Tim and their son. Maria-Jose is an avid student of undocumented women’s narratives of suffering, writing academically on cultural psychology and migration studies. She speaks and writes often on immigration and mental health, and the role of the body of Christ in fostering social transformation.
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Resilient Immigrants in an Unhealthy System
LAST SUMMER, THE FUTURE of for-profit prisons seemed bleak. The U.S. Department of Justice announced it would begin phasing out its use of privately run prisons and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security quickly followed suit, declaring that it would reconsider its use of privately run detention centers. Stocks for companies that ran for-profit prisons plunged.
But then Donald Trump was elected president, and private prison stocks immediately soared. The nation’s largest prison company, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), reported a boost of more than 40 percent in the value of its shares. Given Trump’s promises to “create a new special deportation task force,” investors bet that privately run detention centers will play a key role.
And the investors may be right. Every year, DHS detains about 400,000 undocumented immigrants in 250 centers nationwide, and 62 percent of the beds in these centers are operated by for-profit corporations.
According to Maria-José Soerens, a licensed mental-health counselor serving undocumented immigrants in Seattle, there are two major problems with for-profit detention centers. First, for-profit centers are not held accountable to the standards that govern federally run centers. In her work in these centers, Soerens has heard complaints ranging from a lack of medical attention to inadequate opportunities for parent-child visitation; one young woman who was having suicidal thoughts was kept in solitary confinement until she told guards she was “better.”
But the deepest problem, explains Soerens, is that most detention centers only exist because corporations saw a “business opportunity.” Beginning in the early 2000s, for-profit prison companies successfully lobbied Congress to expand drastically the number of beds in the immigration detention system—a move that doubled the revenue of the two largest for-profit prison companies. In 1998, there were 14,000 beds available for immigrant detention; today, there are 34,000.
The Lonely Oppression of Private Detention
Four weeks ago many of us celebrated the news that the Department of Justice plans to end its use of for-profit prisons. But we then had to wrestle with the fact that this means nothing for migrant detention, which is the largest supplier of prison contracts for GEO and CCA — the top two corporations behind for-profit detention of immigrants of all ages: from babies to the elderly.
I Work With Migrant Detainees. Which Immigration Narrative Do You Want to Hear?
The real power of these assessments is that they become safe spaces for people to tell their own story and in their own terms. Change lies in our collective capacity to open more avenues for first person accounts — and, more importantly, to translate these accounts into first person movements.