Making Invisible Carceral Spaces Visible: Immigration, Detention, and Activism Inside the El Centro SPC

Jessica Ordaz, History Department, UC Davis.
Friday, February 27, 2015

Jessica Ordaz, a PhD student in the UCD History Department, studies how undocumented and incarcerated immigrants make claims on the state. There were 16 graduate students and faculty from Sociology, Geography, History, Human Ecology, Economics, and two visiting scholars from UTA and the UNAM in Mexico in attendance.

Ordaz explored the contrasting narratives of immigration officials and the immigrant detainees with regards to the role of the Special Processing Center (SPCs) in El Centro, California a "place where detainees awaited their deportation hearings, not intended for the purpose of punishment." Immigration officials say their role is to provide a safe place for detainees with access to food, housing, emergency medical and dental care, clothing, and recreational facilities. Detained migrants, on the other hand, consider themselves "prisoners held without legal justification" who are living in conditions "worse than prisoners of war."

Ordaz uses a hunger strike at the El Centro SPC in 1985 to show how undocumented migrants challenge their incarceration even though they are thought to be nonpolitical and submissive actors. She used the statements made by participants in the strike to exemplify some of the contradictions created by a system that both supports and deters migration by importing and deporting workers through different institutions.

Ordaz concluded migrant detention centers use punitive practices in order to deter future illegal migration by those detained and all who come in contact with them or learn about the harsh conditions in the SPC. Ordaz thanks that El Centro's history illustrates its significance as a place to regulate labor and migration.

Discussant Jennifer Scott (University of Texas, Austin) voiced concerns about the methodology used in Ordaz' research, since only one detention center was studied and only one event was used to make inferences about a broader phenomenon.  Scott also wondered about the construction of a social citizenship for the undocumented migrants ascribed by the actions of the US who give migrants some protections while they await deportation hearings, which would challenge the punitive quality claimed by Ordaz. Scott's last comment referred to the periodization of the paper: will more dates be included in the final research?

Comments from other participants included issues of methodology (Why El Centro? is it representative (typical) or an extreme example of bad conditions?); analysis (are the worsening conditions within these SPCs part of a general trend of overall prison system deterioration?); and framing (why not present the socio-historical embeddedness of this process, which involves a geopolitical strategy to deal with events related to the displacement of Central Americans at the time).