The Fight to Close Child Detention Centers in Chicago

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Heartland Alliance operates at least nine detention centers for migrant children in the Chicagoland area. The children in these centers come to the United States with their families, seeking asylum from dangerous policies and conditions (paid for and directed by the U.S. government) in their native country.

Then, sometime during or after their journey, Homeland Security separates and steals the children from loved ones who are waiting to receive them. Once taken into custody, Homeland Security then charges these genocide survivors with immigration crimes, initiates their deportation proceedings, and transfers them to detention centers like those run by Heartland Alliance. Some children wait there for months while their families are investigated, fingerprinted, and often slated for deportation – a long and profitable process for both the social service agency and the government.

Life in child detention centers is not like “summer camp” or a “shelter,” as Heartland Alliance has its donors and employees believe. The children are in prison – separated from their families, forced to act “calmly” while dealing with separation anxiety, fear, loneliness and exhaustion. If children act out or cry too much, they are often medicated without consent. The centers’ modus operandi is to sequester, isolate, brainwash and police these children – a veritable baby prison industrial complex. This practice of root removal has been the normal procedure and colonizing method for generations. The fact that this dirty work is taking root in Chicago under the guise of a nonprofit agency is insidious and strategic.

Heartland Alliance’s funding pipeline benefits from no less than $40 million in funding from the federal government annually – detaining refugee migrant children is big business in this country. Heartland has not only duped its donors into believing it is an “advocate for the protection of human rights, domestically and all around the world,” but it also has implicated job-seekers. Well-meaning people apply for and take jobs with Heartland, wanting to make a difference in the lives of youth in need. Once inside, however, employees see a microcosm of the reality, which is that at least 27 children in Chicago alone were in Heartland’s care for more than 200 days in July 2017. A 17-year old from Honduras was in custody for 598 days. “It’s traumatic to have this indefinite detention,” said Emily Ruehs-Navarro, an assistant professor of sociology at Elmhurst College. “It’s a vicious cycle where the longer kids stay, the more trauma is compounded on their situation.”

To keep up with the volume and duration of child stays, and to combat horrific claims of negligence and abuse by former staff, Heartland has been recruiting new employees all across the country, including in Chicago. The recruitment uses bilingual materials and the promise of meaningful work to woo unsuspecting candidates into supporting the imprisonment of their would-be neighbors.

One hub of recruitment is the Pilsen neighborhood, which has been a Mexican community since the 1970s. Pilsen has a rich history of serving as shelter and haven for arriving immigrants and refugees. In recent years, community groups like Moratorium on Deportations and the Little Village Solidarity Network have been leading teach-ins about immigration issues, detainment and child detention along with providing resources for undocumented people. In short, the community is trying to find ways to remain a safe haven for those with and without legal status, even as ICE raids ravage the area.

For all of these reasons and due to recent reports that bring Heartland Alliance’s dirty secrets to the forefront (ProPublica and Mother Jones both published articles detailing these issues in full), communities are fighting back. In September, Pilsen community members launched a campaign to demand the complete closure of detention centers for immigrant children. A press conference was held on September 11 in which organizers “call[ed] on the entire community to publicly denounce these child detention centers. We do not want centers of captivity in our community. We do not want these centers to exist. We want the complete closure of these so-called “shelters.” The complete freedom of all children. The complete dissolution of contracts between the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Refugee Resettlement, with Heartland Alliance and the Archdiocese of Chicago.” 

Immediately following the momentum of that press conference, an action was staged at a September 12 job fair at the Chicago Workforce Center in Pilsen where Heartland was recruiting youth care workers and other part-time bilingual help. The purpose of the action was to prevent additional people from falling victim to Heartland’s talking points (and becoming complicit in their child jails) and to show Heartland that their presence and lies would not be tolerated in our neighborhoods. Further, the intent was to dissuade job fair organizers (who were unaffiliated with Heartland) from welcoming Heartland back to exhibit and prey on more working people.

In support of these aims, infiltrators attended the job fair under the guise of potential applicants. They whispered the truths about Heartland to other applicants and social service organization representatives and distributed flyers in English and Spanish outlining Heartland’s true role in child detention in Chicago (including a map with the names and locations of the centers). After speaking to a majority of attendees, the infiltrators gathered by Heartland’s booth for a banner drop and to yell out facts about the true face of Heartland Alliance. The disruption reached everyone at the fair and continued as the infiltrators were kicked out and moved onto the sidewalk below to protest the event in public space.

The potential applicants who were reached by the infiltrators were successfully discouraged from talking with and applying to Heartland Alliance; most were disgusted to hear about the centers in their own neighborhoods like Bronzeville and Englewood. Most applicants were happy to redirect their efforts to the other companies at the fair, and also took home the literature and maps about the child detention centers. Once the action moved outside, even more applicants were dissuaded by seeing the banners and hearing the message about Heartland on the sidewalk before they walked into the job fair. Additionally, some of the representatives from other companies and agencies were eager to take back the message about Heartland to their peers. Lastly, the Heartland representative was very much caught off guard by the action.

Later that month, Heartland was a no show at a September 21 job fair in another Chicago neighborhood. That was a reward in and of itself, in addition to the successes achieved on the 12th.

A statement from the organizers of the action reads, “Moving toward abolition and total decarceration means confronting the forms of state violence that are masked as ‘service’ or as ‘alternatives to detention,’ but which in fact expand and normalize the state’s capacity to cage, terrorize and profit from racialized populations like Heartland Alliance does. Solidarity with all the prisoners, especially those who are children without immigration status. Free them all.”

To support the ongoing fight for liberation of migrant children in Chicago and the abolition of fake social service organizations like Heartland Alliance, follow Little Village Solidarity Network on Twitter at @littlevillagesn or on Facebook at @LaVillitaSolidaridad and read their campaign demands. Upcoming actions will be posted in the coming weeks.


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