January 18, 2024 — Following powerful testimony on the need to end ICE detention in the state of New Mexico, Innovation Law Lab’s Ariel Prado delivered these remarks at the State Capitol before hundreds of attendees. (See a clip here.)

My name is Ariel Prado. I am the director of civic engagement for Innovation Law Lab, a member of the Dignity Not Detention Coalition and the Torrance County Listening Project.

I’m going to talk today about questions we’ve learned to ask about the role that detention centers play in the communities that surround them.

About the experiences and needs of the people who work in detention centers, and the people who live in communities neighboring detention centers.

About the fact that our tax dollars are used to prop up prisons, and what we could be supporting instead.

Before doing so I want to take a moment to reflect on what we just heard.

It is not an accident that the experience of detention, the experience of deportation, the experience of being separated from one’s family and one’s community — it is not by accident that those experiences are torturous.

US immigration policy is designed to deter people from coming to the United States.

If the experience of migrating to the United States can be made worse than what forces people to migrate, the thought is that people won’t come.

That should be enough. That these places are designed to rob people of hope — that should be reason enough to take a principled stance against ICE detention.

However, when communities successfully draw attention to the ways that ICE prisons inflict suffering, when calls for an end to immigration prisons are effective, we start to hear narratives that shift the focus to the economic role that prisons play in rural communities.

Some legislators in NM would have us believe that rural economic distress begins when prisons close.

Supporters of immigration prisons pretend that immigration prisons are solutions to economic distress.

And they are content with the assumption that either immigrants must be jailed or rural communities must suffer.

These proponents of an economy based in human suffering avoid more thoughtful conversations, not only about the harm that people endure in ICE detention, but also more thoughtful conversations about the nature of prison jobs, meaningful strategies for addressing rural economic distress, and what it might look like for investments in rural communities to be guided by residents of rural communities.

With these questions in mind, in July of 2023, we launched the Torrance County Listening Project, a volunteer-driven project, working with residents of Torrance County to put forth a vision for how communities in the county can thrive.

We are learning about the future that residents of Torrance County want, for themselves, their children, and their communities.

State funding for the things that residents of rural communities actually need can help create jobs that people actually want, as well as opportunities for new economic activity.

There are opportunities this session for legislators to support rural economic development that directly serves the needs of residents of rural communities.

For instance, we have heard from residents throughout Torrance County about the need for emergency medical services. The Association of Counties has asked the state to make $10 million available to support local government Emergency Medical Services. Legislators should be jumping to support this.

The Local Solar Access Fund would support solar projects in communities across New Mexico and solarizing schools and other public buildings helps rural communities save on utility costs.

We’ve heard asks for expanded jobs training, after school programs, programs for seniors, investment in existing community centers and senior centers.

These are the types of projects legislators should be supporting.

Part of supporting communities to move away from prison economies requires taking a clear and principled stance: That it is unacceptable to build our economies on industries of human suffering.

That we do not want to see our tax dollars used to punish people for migrating.

We want our tax dollars to fund jobs that people actually want.

I’ll never forget the words of one guard who told me as she was months away from retirement: “I wish I could have had a job that didn’t hurt my soul so much.”

So we refuse to accept the premise that either immigrant communities must suffer or rural communities must suffer.

Working class residents of rural communities deserve to thrive and so do immigrant communities.

We will continue to support life affirming projects that create jobs that people can feel proud of.

We will continue to oppose investments in death and human suffering.

We will continue to call for the closure of places of human suffering like the Torrance County Detention Facility, like the Cibola County Correctional Center, and the Otero County Processing Center.

If we allow them to, industries of suffering become part of the landscape.

But the prisons were not always there. The prisons will not always be there, and another world is possible.