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A People’s History of the End the Contract Campaign in Kent County

June 24, 2021

As the late historian Howard Zinn has taught is, history is often presented from the perspective of those with privilege and power

Recently, there has been some social media posts that have suggested that Democratic members of the Kent County Commission were the ones who ended the contract that the county had with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is indeed revisionist history, and we want to set the record straight.

My aim here, is not to convince those with power and privilege, but to present a people’s history of how the contract was ended between ICE and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.

Kent County began its contract with ICE in 2012. In looking at previous documentation, there was never any real opposition to this contract by any members of the Kent County Commission, from the adoption of the contract in 2012, through the contract’s termination in 2019. 

Beginning in the early part of 2018, the group GR Rapid Response to ICE began investigating contracts that ICE might have had in Kent County. We discovered that there was a contract that began in 2012, a contract extension signed in 2017, and a 2018 letter from the National Sheriffs’ Association sent to Congress, which then Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma had signed onto. The letter presented a false narrative, which stated in part:

Because Congress has failed to enact the necessary reforms, our citizens and legal residents face even greater dangers, our national security is more vulnerable, and our enforcement efforts have been seriously compromised.

Once we had collected all of this information, GR Rapid Response to ICE and Movimineto Cosecha GR decided to begin a campaign to End the Contract between ICE and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. Since the Sheriff’s Department had no public meetings, we decided to plan an action at the Kent County Commission meeting in late June of 2018. 

Just weeks prior to the publicly announced plan to attend the Kent County Commission meeting, the Trump administration had been detaining immigrants at the US/Mexican border, putting them in detention centers, where images of children in cages became national news. When planning the first action to end the contract, we used the national news to make it clear that ICE was not just separating families at the border, they were also separating families in Kent County.

We packed the room at the June 28, 2018 Kent County Commission, with some 250 people who came to say End the Contract Now! The Republican Commissioners left the room when we decided to take over the meeting, as did some of the Democratic Commissioners. I wrote about this action, which you can read here.

This was the beginning of actions taken to End the Contract. Here is a list of everything we did to End the ICE Contract:

  • We held dozens of strategy meetings, which always resulted in planning future actions.
  • We attended every Kent County Commission Meeting to continue to make our demands, to offer testimony on family separation that was happening by ICE in Kent County and to monitor any comments made by commissioners about the contract.
  • Some of the people involved in the campaign met with individual commissioners
  • We ran a petition campaign to End the Contract, which we delivered at one of the Commission meetings.
  • We held a protest outside of Chairman Saalfeld’s home the night before one of the commission meetings.
  • We organized several protests at the Kent County Jail.
  • We organized several protest outside of the various ICE offices in downtown Grand Rapids.
  • We organized a disruption protest during ArtPrize, on their main stage, drawing attention to family separation in Kent County.
  • We created educational materials, which we distributed.
  • We created artwork and had sign making parties.
  • We spoke to community-based groups about the campaign.
  • We utilized social media to education and get the word out about the End the Contract Campaign.
  • We held a People’s Commission action during one of the Kent County Commission meetings. 
  • We worked with the Western Michigan branch of the ACLU and MIRC, who not only obtained their own FOIA documents, but offered their legal expertise on why Kent County was not legally obligated to cooperate with ICE.

As you can see from this list, we spent a great deal of time and energy to End the Contract in Kent County.

Then the GRPD called ICE on Jilmar Ramos Gomez, a US citizen and former Marine, who was suffering from PTSD and started a fire at Spectrum Hospital. Based on the FOIA documents that were obtained by the Grand Rapids Civilian Appeal Board, it was clear that Captain Curt VanderKooi demonstrated racial bias in the Jilmar Ramos Case. This story began to get national news and within a few months, the acting Kent County Sheriff had changed their policy with ICE, by requiring ICE to get a judicial warrant to put a hold on people who were in the Kent County Jail. 

This was a victory for the campaign, since 6 months before all of this, no one was talking about the ICE contract with Kent County. The Sheriff’s decision to require a judicial warrant was a direct result of our pressure campaign to End the Contract and the constant news media attention we were getting and creating ourselves. However, the contract with ICE was still in place and was up for renewal in September of 2019.

In the meantime, families affected by ICE violence and some of the lawyers who represented them, shared with us that as a way of getting around the County’s requirement to get a judicial warrant to hold people, ICE was now waiting inside the Kent County Jail and apprehending people who were about to be released from the jail and taking them to detention in Battle Creek.

We were still receiving calls every week from people in the community who had family members arrested and detained by ICE, so we continued with the work to End the Contract. 

In late August, we organized another march/protest at the Kent County Jail, where we took over the lobby area in the jail. During the protest inside the jail, we invited several people to share their stories about how ICE had been waiting inside the Kent County Jail to apprehend their family members, just as they were about to be released. This action also generated a great deal of news media attention. 

The very next day, the day after our action at the Kent County Jail, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office released a statement saying that ICE would be terminating their contract with Kent County in September and would not be renewing their contract with the jail. This, we believe, was a direct result of the End the Contract Campaign, which had begun 13 months prior.

This is how the contract with ICE had ended. For members of the Kent County Democratic Party to claim they ended the contract is not only absurd, it is an out right lie. In fact, Democratic Kent County Commissioners fought the movement to End the Contract, engaged in gaslighting of some of the latinx organizers and made no public effort to support our demands or work to End the Contract. One Democratic Kent County Commissioner went so far as to mock the very organizers of the End the Contract Campaign, often referring to what we were doing as Bolshevik cosplay

The ICE contract with Kent County happened because the of the countless hours and deep passion that organizers and volunteers put in to force the end of the contract, since the campaign was polarizing so many people. The End the Contract campaign was the direct result of the immigrant justice movement in Kent County, demonstrating once again the power social movements can have in our communities. 

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