For more than 14 years, Jeanette Vizguerra and her husband have worked tirelessly to ensure a better future for their children.
Vizguerra, who lives in the Denver area, juggles many roles: business owner, mother, wife, advocate and activist. She lobbies for equal treatment in the workplace with a local union chapter, SEIU 105, contributes to her Neighborhood Watch program and volunteers at her children’s school. Vizguerra is also one of thousands of people struggling against a broken immigration system. In 2000, her husband began a long, expensive battle with cancer. Vizguerra struggled to keep their cleaning and moving business afloat and eventually had to take a second job to support her family.
On Feb. 4, 2009, she was faced with a choice: miss work or drive a car with expired tags. Needless to say, missing work was not an option. What should have been a routine traffic stop immediately turned into an inquiry about the mother’s status in the U.S., according to Vizguerra. She says the first question from the officer was, “Are you legal or illegal in this country?”
Legal immigration into the U.S. is a near impossible task for people who don’t have a relative to sponsor them or have been labeled “unskilled” workers. In 2010, the U.S. Department of State issued visas to roughly 66,000 Mexican nationals; however, the visa waiting list has now swelled to include about 1.4 million Mexicans, according to the department. Facing such odds, Vizguerra chose another route. Lacking proper papers, Vizguerra was arrested and detained that February in a private prison owned by GEO Group Inc. For 40 days, she could visit with her children, but only if bound in handcuffs. Vizguerra was now part of an international debate about the role of corporations in shaping public policy.
The politics behind private prisons
The Obama administration has repeatedly stated it is interested in deporting only criminal aliens, but recent actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement have increased the level of distrust among immigrant communities and law enforcement. The U.S. is debating what to do with nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants, and like many public issues, immigration is not immune to the influence of corporate interest. Our elected officials have neglected to pursue real policy changes that would treat undocumented immigrants with the dignity and respect to which every human being is entitled. Instead, politicians have fallen into the pockets of Wall Street, causing the incarceration of millions of immigrants seeking a better life.
Corporations such as GEO Group and CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) have taken it upon themselves to build unnecessary detention centers in the middle of densely populated immigrant communities around the U.S. There’s one in my home city of Aurora, which in 2008 planned on tripling its size, making it the second-largest immigrant detention center in the country.
Once these private prisons are built, there is one sure path to profit: incarcerate as many people as possible. But what does a corporation do when there is no demand for the service it provides? Create it! By hiring lobbyists like the extreme right-wing group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), corporations are able to press for laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, which permits police officers to inquire about immigration status prior to arrest. This opens the door for officers to target people based on nothing more than the color of their skin.
Private prisons secure contracts with the federal government to operate. It’s an expensive partnership for taxpayers, with an expected price tag of more than $2 billion in 2012, according to a National Immigration Forum study. The rapid expansion of for-profit prisons is also dependent on an initial flow of capital from investors with deep pockets. This is where Wells Fargo enters the picture. As the fourth-largest investor in the GEO Group, Wells Fargo has helped perpetuate the mass incarceration of undocumented immigrants.
The seeds for reform
The Los Angeles-based community organization Enlace started the National Divestment Campaign in 2011. The goal is to reverse investments in the private prison industry. Through a network of community organizations coordinated throughout the U.S., Enlace has been able to pressure investors into reevaluating whether they want to be part of the destructive private prison industry. Enlace had its first victory with Pershing Square Capital Management – a hedge fund that had over $180 million in holdings in CCA. Pershing Square divested all of its stock holdings, causing a 10 percent drop in CCA’s stock price.
In May 2011, the National Divestment Campaign set its sights on Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo denied any involvement with the GEO Group, the corporation that owned the prison where Vizguerra spent 40 days. But stock filings show that Wells Fargo is invested with more than 3.5 million shares. Wells Fargo claims the stock filings show what has been invested on behalf of mutual fund clients and not by Wells Fargo itself. The only problem is that Wells Fargo’s name is in the stock filings, and Wells Fargo can always choose the companies in which it allows investments.
Each day, more people are joining the fight against for-profit prisons, including the student group Politically Active Students at Metro State. I’m part of the group, which recently launched a campaign to pressure the Auraria Campus to severe ties with Wells Fargo. Meanwhile, Vizguerra’s case is pending. She could be deported and separated from her three young children – Luna, 8, Roberto, 5, and Zuri, 1 – at any time. Her case isn’t unique. Millions of families live under the threat of deportation, risking it all in hopes that their children will have a better life than theirs. To me, the fight goes beyond Wells Fargo. It’s a fight to keep the Vizguerra family united.