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Know the West

Protesting immigrant detention during a pandemic

Will new forms of collective action lead to permanent societal changes?



Late on a Friday afternoon in April, protesters clad in face masks and bandannas gathered in a truck stop parking lot off the freeway between Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona. The posters taped on their cars read Free Them All” and Detention Is Deadly.”  

This unique protest, planned by grassroots groups including Puente Human Rights Movement, a Phoenix-based nonprofit, and No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid organization, called for the release of detainees who are currently exposed to COVID-19 behind bars.

“Finding a way to do action even in such a weird and dramatic time is really vital.”

The car-only rally was advertised on social media as a “COVID-safe” action. Using an app called Telegram, which functioned as a one-way walkie-talkie, organizers sent out audio instructions along with a map of the protest’s route. 

“Finding a way to do action even in such a weird and dramatic time is really vital,” one protester explained as we waited in the parking lot. 

At around 4:30 p.m., the cars snaked down the road to the Eloy Detention Center and La Palma Correctional Center, driving in loops past the concertina wire fence. Protesters honked their horns and beat pots and pans. Over a hundred supporters showed up.  


According to U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE), 30 La Palma detainees have already tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 4. Advocates fear that conditions inside the facilities will cause the virus to spread even further. The Eloy Detention Center has seen bouts of contagious diseases in the past, including a measles outbreak in 2016 that sickened 22 detainees and employees. 

Protesting against immigrant detention isn’t new, but doing so in the era of social distancing is. Large gatherings have been canceled, but activism continues, Puente organizer Máxima Guerrero said. In fact, COVID-19 has made it even more necessary. The urgency doesn’t go away,” she said. Its a time to ask, How can we still add pressure? How can we still expose the abuses that are happening?’ ”

Since late March, lawyers and advocates have succeeded in getting medically vulnerable detainees released on a case-by case basis in states like Colorado and Washington, while New York and California are releasing hundreds of incarcerated persons from prisons. And advocates say more should be let out now, given the risk of COVID-19 and the fact that, as of March 61% of immigrant detainees were being held without a criminal conviction. It just proves there is no reason those folks should have been locked up in the first place,” Guerrero said. Hopefully, (their release) shifts this narrative or this assumption that in general our society needs to hold people behind bars.”  


Activists are holding car rallies along with digital actions like virtual protests and teach-ins. Researchers from the United States and England are tracking new forms of collective action, ranging from mutual aid networks to worker and rent strikes. “Far from condemning social movements to obsolescence, the pandemic — and governments’ responses to it — are spawning new tools, new strategies and new motivation to push for change,” they wrote in The Guardian. According to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank, in the last three years, 11.5 million Americans have participated in 16,000 anti-government protests across the country. 

Activists see the pandemic as an opportunity to “seize the moment,” said Pamela Oliver, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin — a chance to build support for a cause by helping people in tangible ways, such as fundraising to pay bonds. (Organizers) see that as part of their political work, as part of building those connections and community which they think are essential to a better society.” 

Since that first successful car protest in early April, Puente has organized other “United for Freedom” caravans at other prisons, jails and detention facilities. For at least one activist, these protests are personal. Noemi Romero, a DACA recipient and Puente organizer, was detained at Eloy in 2013 for using her mother’s Social Security number to work at a grocery store. Romero was held in a pod with dozens of other women, in dirty cells where cleaning supplies were lacking, while medical care was slow and inadequate, she said.  

In response, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic, the private contractor that operates Eloy and La Palma, told HCN that staff adhere to all CDC recommendations regarding COVID and that allegations that staff ignore medical needs were “patently false.” But Romero remembers a different reality. “You would have to be almost dying for them to give you medical attention right away,” she said.  

As the car rally came to a close, Romero stood outside Eloy and posed for a picture. Her fist thrust in the air, she looked defiantly at the camera, her eyes barely visible over her white mask.

“At least on our end, the detainees inside know that they are not alone,” she said. “We are protesting for them.”

Left: Puente organizer, Noemi Romero, is a DACA recipient who was detained at Eloy in 2013. Of the conditions inside, she says, “You would have to be almost dying for them to give you medical attention right away.” Right: Phoenix resident and Puente Human Rights Movement activist, Diane Ovalle, looks towards the setting sun as the protest in front of Eloy Detention Center draws to a close.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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