Published: Jan. 20, 2019 By

Jessica Ordaz argues that citizens should not be surprised by news of abuses, encourages student activism that lies ‘at the heart’ of ethnic studies

When the Trump administration announced its family separation policy in April, an immediate public outcry ensued, but the move was not unprecedented in U.S. history and it might even recur, a University of Colorado Boulder professor contends.

Between April and June, more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents upon entering the United States to seek asylum. These separations were the result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy. On June 20, the president ended the policy, but many children remain separated from their families with no government plan for reunion.  


Jessica Ordaz

Jessica Ordaz, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at CU Boulder, focuses her research on immigrant detention centers in the United States. She says it’s not uncommon for people to approach her with thoughts about the timeliness of her work. But according to Ordaz, concern about detention centers is not new. 

“It has a very long history,” Ordaz says, adding that her work “isn’t any more relevant than it was in 1945.” 

The year 1945 is when El Centro Service Processing Center, the immigrant detention facility at the center of Ordaz’s new book, opened its doors. The book, which is in progress and is currently titled The Functions of Immigration Detention: Forced Labor, Transnational Migrant Politics and Punishment in California’s Imperial Valley, 1939-2014, focuses on this center “as a kind of case study.” 

Located in California’s Imperial Valley just north of the Mexican border, El Centro housed predominately male Central American asylum seekers from the 1980s onwards. It closed its doors in 2014 to make way for a larger, privatized, co-ed center further south near Calexico, California. 

Rather than looking at the rise of immigrant detention centers, Ordaz’s work focuses on their “function,” the role they play in society. While acknowledging recent changes in detention center infrastructure and increased number of detainees because of the Trump administration, she says that “there has always been state violence” propagated by detention centers, and that it’s critical to address its roots. 

“Tracing the archival trail of El Centro and other detention centers of its type reveal certain patterns of both activism and abuse,” Ordaz says. Detainees in El Centro resisted their imprisonment in many forms, one being the hunger strike. One such event occurred at El Centro in 1985, and is central to Ordaz’s research. 

The strike in question was particularly about inhumane working conditions, like forced outside labor in over 110-degree heat. 

The activism of detainees against “another form of bondage” is central to the story of violence, and is therefore key to Ordaz’s work, which focuses on migrant stories and voices.

She says activism is also responsible for progress made toward gaining rights for minorities thus far, and that topic will be the focus of a class Ordaz is teaching this upcoming spring. 

Ordaz says that this class will engage with “systemic and cultural forms of conversation and activism” in the United States, and is unique in the way that it will put many social movements “into conversation” with one another. This means that rather than addressing instances of activism in cultural isolation, they will be analyzed through an intersectional and comparative lens.

Activism requires community spaces and resources for organization. On campus at CU Boulder, groups like the United Mexican American Students organization and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Atzlán help provide those resource for students. “These spaces need to be mandatory,” says Ordaz, who got her PhD at the University of California, Davis.

“At the heart of ethnic studies is activism,” she says, adding that without the student activism of the 1960s, ethnic studies would not exist.

Ordaz adds that ethnic studies courses are useful for students, “regardless of what job they end up getting, because they make you think critically about your position in the world, and how we operate with one another.”