Commentary: Essential farmworkers makeup the majority of McFarland’s population GEO Group aims to profit from

April 23, 2020 /

By Rosa Lopez

I’m a 20-year-old college student who returned from the UC Berkeley campus this semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of going to class and studying with my friends, I’m now at home with my family. Both of my parents are farmworkers, who are deemed essential workers in the current crisis. My parents have been in this community for over 20 years, and I was born here in California. 

My dad works in the orange fields, and my mom worked in the blueberry fields up until a few days ago. My mom is unsure why the work has stopped, but it seems that it’s because of COVID-19. In addition to keeping up with my school work, there’s the added stress at home of worrying that my parents and siblings stay healthy and that we have enough money coming in as a family so we can pay our bills and pay for our most basic necessities. 

I have always had pride in being from McFarland. Growing up in a small town means that I know my community and my neighbors. I have learned that my community is caring, hard working, and that everyone should be valued regardless of their immigration status. I’m troubled by some of the recent steps taken by the City of McFarland to allow GEO to convert two state prisons in McFarland to immigration detention facilities. 

The GEO Group is a private prison company that operates immigrant detention centers throughout the country. The company has been sued for coercive labor practices, meaning it has a record of having detainees work for free or for $1 per day. The ACLU has also sued the GEO Group for the wrongful death of a man who died in custody of an Aurora, Colorado facility back in 2017. These are just a few of the disturbing stories to come out of GEO Group facilities. There have been many stories of abuse, violence and neglect at GEO facilities. 

The City of McFarland appointed Eric Rodriguez, a former U.S. Marine and former GEO Group, Inc. employee to fill the vacant seat on April 9. The meeting didn’t have interpreters available for our Spanish speaking residents, and this meeting was conducted via teleconference where community members could not fully participate. McFarland is not a resource rich community, where residents are accustomed to participating in government via teleconference or webconference. We often do things in person because the people here are limited, but due to the pandemic, our government cannot meet as usual. 

It feels like our local government is trying to pull a fast one on us and take advantage of this difficult time to make sure that GEO operates in our city by attempting to have a vote on the company’s appeal to convert two state prisons into immigrant detention centers. There will be limited access to this meeting because it will be held via teleconference. Close to 40 percent of our city’s population is foreign born, some of whom don’t have legalized status. This community relies on immigrant labor and contributions of hard working people like my parents. I don’t think that prioritizing the needs of an exploitive, private prison company should come at the expense of our immigrant neighbors, family members, and friends. 

My family has had conversations about leaving McFarland. I have heard from friends that their families are considering leaving the city if GEO is allowed to operate here. Immigrant detention centers are not known for being clean or particularly responsive to the health needs of its detainees. Keeping people in close quarters during a pandemic or ever is a recipe for disaster. Not only would people who are being held in the detention center be at risk, but so would staff and guards who live in our city and the surrounding towns. Our city should be promoting the health and wellness of our current residents and finding ways to assist families who are struggling instead of catering to a for-profit prison company that is trying to take advantage of the situation with the current pandemic. If our farmworkers are deemed as essential, then why are we allowing private companies to profit off of them. Our families are holding up the country in this time of need, we deserve respect.

Rosa Lopez, 20, is student at UC Berkeley and a lifelong resident of McFarland. She is the daughter of farmworkers and the oldest of four siblings.