Three individuals who have supported and fought to protect migrant workers and their families detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement addressed the question, “Are ICE Detention Centers Modern Day Concentration Camps?" as part of the Niagara University’s fall 2020 Social Justice Speaker Series, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

Carra Stratton, housing, post-release and court support coordinator for Justice for Migrant Families of WNY, an organization working to bridge the gap between the undocumented community and the larger Buffalo and immigrant community; Phil Gambini, an author for the Investigative Post, who has written on detention facility practices; and  Robert Galbraith, a senior researcher at Public Accountability Initiative, nonprofit public interest research organization focused on corporate and government accountability, were the featured panelists. Each shared their unique perspective of the issue before answering questions from the audience.

Stratton led the discussion by sharing her observations and efforts to support individuals in the federal detention facility in Batavia as a volunteer with Justice for Migrant Families, a nonprofit organization established following the Oct. 18, 2016, ICE raids on four Mexican restaurants in Buffalo, N.Y. This investigation led to the discovery and apprehension of 25 undocumented workers, who were subsequently detained in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, N.Y. She spoke of the abysmal conditions detainees face in a facility that was meant to be temporary, but has been “home” to hundreds of individuals, some of whom have spent more than five years there.

“This place is not designed for prolonged detention. There are very few activities,” she said. “The boredom is excruciating there, the library is extraordinarily small and contains mostly books in English, and there are reports of lockdown in the units from 12 to 18 hours a day. There’s very sporadic access to outside time, and the reports we get through our phone line and through visitation is of people experiencing medical neglect, physical abuse, insufficient food, lack of orientation to the legal process. People do not know what is going to happen next. There’s a lot of confusion, there’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot of boredom.”

Gambini said he was a reporter with the Niagara Gazette when he first became aware of the community of migrant workers that support the economy and the community in Niagara County. He has since done stories on the detention system, most notably, on Akima Global Services’ “Voluntary Work Program,” which pays participants $1 per day to do menial tasks. The wage, paid as a credit deposited into a commissary account, can be used to purchase basic items at exorbitant prices, essentially returning the money to AGS, which owns and operates the commissary.

“So, when you’re buying a $4 Ramen noodle, it costs four days work and you’re paying the company that paid you to do the work,” he said. “It’s a really knotted system. You have a company that’s a subsidiary of a super organization that has a very complicated tax structure, that farms out its duties within the facility to pay (individuals) $1 a day, and then that money goes back into Akima’s pocket when those individuals purchase Ramen noodles or soap from the facility that they are detained within.”

He also addressed the isolation the detainees are experiencing and their lack of experience with the legal system in the United States; settings that are more like prison cells than dormitories; and the discharge process, which is abrupt and without prior notification. He said newly released individuals are driven in unmarked cars to a gas station about a mile from the detention facility (where a bus stops only twice in the morning), “sometimes without money to buy a bus ticket, typically without any understanding of where they might go because they had no opportunity to plan.”

Galbraith has done a lot of research documenting and trying to figure out the ways that ICE shows up in local politics and in the local economy, he said.

“If there’s one point I would really hope that people can walk away from this with, it’s that ICE is a lot bigger an institution in the system than just this archipelago of detention facilities,” he said. "It’s fully integrated into the economy, the political structure, and the actual geographic space that we inhabit, and it includes people and … a lot of the buildings and actual physical spaces that we encounter and interact with every day.”

He discussed the connection between prominent real estate businesses in Buffalo and ICE, including the fact that the local ICE headquarters is located on the seventh floor of the Delaware North building, which links the agency with both Uniland and Delaware North. ICE also contracts with vendors including MVP Network Consulting and the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, run by Goodwill of Greater Rochester, N.Y.

“What we’re talking about is a really, really big structure, and I think that can be very intimidating, but I think that it’s also important to note that, the larger and larger a system like that gets and the more different pieces that it’s reliant upon, those can all become places of weakness for it and places where creative people can figure out ways to insert themselves in the process,” he said.

The social justice speaker series, which sponsored in partnership with Burning Books, has presented “activists, educators, resisters across a spectrum of political and social issues,” said Dr. David Reilly, NU professor of political science, who organized the event. “The purpose of our series has been, and will continue to be, to engage the campus and the broader community in these struggles by introducing the ideas of the individuals who have been active participants and who have led them. We believe we’ve been able to contribute to important dialogue on and off campus and to motivate our students and our community to work for social justice.”