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November 26

ICE Collaborators of the Year: Gala for Chicago Nonprofit Heartland Alliance Disrupted

Report on recent mobilization and disruption of a fundraising gala for the Heartland Alliance, which operates detention facilities for migrant children.

On Wednesday November 20th, demonstrators descended on the Swissôtel in downtown Chicago. Inside, the nonprofit Heartland Alliance — the second largest contractor of permanent detention facilities for migrant children in the US — was holding its annual fundraising gala. Chanting “Heartland jails kids for money!” and repeatedly blocking entrances to the hotel, nearly a hundred protesters interrupted gala festivities and forced attendees to confront the violence committed with their money and support.

Before the gala even began, organizers scored a victory against Heartland. #FreeHeartlandKids, Little Village Solidarity Network, Rogers Park Solidarity Network, and Rising Tide Chicago sent an open letter signed by 25 community groups to one of the evening’s keynote speakers, PolicyLink founder Angela Glover Blackwell. On learning of Heartland’s collaboration, Blackwell immediately withdrew from the event — though she dodged demands that she issue a public statement denouncing Heartland.

“Heartland Alliance — the second largest contractor of permanent detention facilities for migrant children in the US.”

As guests began to arrive at the gala, protesters blocked the streets in front of the hotel, shutting down Upper Wacker Drive and the entrance to Lake Shore Drive. The major traffic artery was closed for half an hour as police scrambled to respond. Other demonstrators moved into the hotel driveway to prevent cars from dropping off attendees. During the street takeover, two drivers menaced protesters by lurching their vehicles violently at the crowd, who held their ground. These cars and many more were forced to turn around, further snarling traffic. Meanwhile, other demonstrators had infiltrated the hotel to disrupt the proceedings happening inside. They ensured that anyone who had managed to avoid the gauntlet on their way in was confronted with the truth about Heartland’s so-called “shelters” for “unaccompanied alien children.”’

Swissôtel staff worked closely with Heartland to police the demo. Security staff were heard jeering and saying “fuck you and those kids.” They physically assaulted protesters and pointed flashlights directly into protesters’ eyes at close range. Even the notoriously violent, racist Chicago Police had to step in and tell security to stop provoking and attacking protesters. Following complaints on social media, hotel staff responded by claiming that some of the security were in fact hired by Heartland because they require organizations to bring their own security if they are holding large events. However, it was impossible to discern Heartland’s security from the hotel’s. Such close collaboration and behavior is to be expected from a company who chooses to host Heartland’s gala year after year. They are well aware of Heartland’s practices, especially since a similar protest was held there at last year’s gala along with a call-in campaign against the hotel.

“With an annual salary of $345,000, Evelyn Diaz profits directly from genocidal violence.”

After forcing guests to enter through a tunnel, protesters held their own counter-celebration complete with colorful costumes, paparazzi, and a blood-red carpet. ICE Collaborator of the Year Awards were presented to Heartland President Evelyn Diaz and Executive Director of their National Immigrant Justice Center Mary Meg McCarthy. In out-sized costumes made from tulle and cardboard, Evelyn and Mary were “present” to accept their awards with enormous blood-soaked hands.

With an annual salary of $345,000, Evelyn Diaz profits directly from genocidal violence. Though she and her agency claim to be helping the children they hold hostage, separating children from their caregivers, especially for prolonged periods in facilities like Heartland’s, can be devastating to their mental health. Further, independent investigations have revealed numerous instances of abuse within Heartland facilities, including sexual assault and forced psychiatric medication. Children are allowed only minimal contact with the outside world, must endure dehumanizing rules like not being allowed to hug, and are even forced to perform unpaid menial labor such as scrubbing toilets with their bare hands.

Heartland’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), headed by Mary Meg McCarthy, is complicit in this violence in a variety of ways. For example, NIJC is paid to conduct “know your rights” trainings for uncomprehending four – and five-year-olds, who are then required to sign papers affirming that they received a “service.” More insidiously, NIJC provides cover for Heartland’s detention operation by helping them appear benevolent. Due to Heartland’s entrenched position in the local nonprofit world and NIJC’s work on legal cases for asylees and refugees, many people in the Chicago area have a positive view of Heartland. They remain ignorant of, or even refuse to believe, the fact that Heartland and NIJC are capable of actively profiting from the same systems they profess to reject.

“Heartland collaborates with ICE…such as ensuring that their hostages attend deportation hearings and handing them over directly to ICE on their 18th birthday to be deported.”

Heartland’s claim that they are protecting children from traffickers by conducting detailed investigations of their potential sponsors and family members is straight out of ICE’s playbook. Recent reporting has revealed that the government’s new “enhanced vetting” procedures were in fact implemented specifically to increase the length of time children are held in detention as a deterrent to migrants. This also allows them to collect information about the children and their families and extended community networks, including biometric data and immigration statuses, which is shared with federal agencies.

The federal government procedures described in such reports match testimony from ex-Heartland employees and leaked documents from inside the program, which describe identical practices at the centers here in Chicago. This has included the use of racist “gang databases” to disqualify potential sponsors, arresting undocumented people who come to claim their children, mandatory finger-printing, and other steps intended to intimidate sponsors into remaining silent. Heartland collaborates with ICE in other ways, such as ensuring that their hostages attend deportation hearings and handing them over directly to ICE on their 18th birthday to be deported.

We know that it is within Heartland’s power to reunite these kids. Four Heartland “shelters” have already been closed after revelations of abuse and public protest. The vast majority of children held captive there were reunited with their families in an expedited process. But because Heartland Human Health Services receives nearly 70% of its budget (almost $98 million between 2017-2020) from government contracts to operate the remaining five detention centers in Chicago, they continue to drag their feet.

“We know that it is within Heartland’s power to reunite these kids. Four Heartland “shelters” have already been closed after revelations of abuse and public protest.”

This action was part of an on-going struggle to end all forms of detention and deportation in Chicago and beyond, and is in solidarity with similar actions spreading across the so-called U.S. The campaign focuses on the local jails for child migrants in order to highlight the role of supposedly sympathetic nonprofits, and to show that the border extends everywhere and thus can be attacked anywhere. Organizers demand that Heartland immediately cease all cooperation with ICE, close their detention centers, end their contract with the federal government, return the children to their sponsors as soon as possible, and give reparations to those harmed. Other actions have included marches to expose the secretive nature of the detention centers hidden in residential neighborhoods, community teach-ins, crashing Heartland’s holiday parties, and driving them out of job fairs.

The next action will be a march from the Thorndale red line station to the house of David Sinski, Vice President of Heartland Alliance and Executive Director of Heartland Human Care Services (their division which runs the child detention program), on December 8th at 11:00am. We will not stop until everyone is free. For information on joining the fight, check out the Little Village Solidarity Network, the Rogers Park Solidarity Network, and #FreeHeartlandKids.

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