Credit: Maya Dukmasova

A short woman in a plastic Guy Fawkes mask strolled in front of the cherry-red, two-and-a-half-ton truck pulling into the driveway of the Swissôtel on East Wacker. Armed with a megaphone, her head barely above the hood, she chanted at the driver: “Heartland Alliance jails kids for money!” The truck crept forward, making contact with her torso and pushing her back one tiny step at a time. As dozens of protesters in carnival masks, feather boas, and tulle skirts beat empty plastic buckets, and chanted and jeered from the sidewalk, hotel security guards in suits shuffled her out of the truck’s path.

On Wednesday, November 20, the Little Village Solidarity Network, Rogers Park Solidarity Network, Rising Tide Chicago, and Free Heartland Kids protested outside the hotel, where the annual fund-raising gala of the Chicago-based nonprofit conglomerate Heartland Alliance was being held. The protest was part of a months-long campaign by community organizations to pressure Heartland subsidiary Heartland Human Care Services to shut down facilities contracted by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to house migrant children. Most of them are kids who have crossed the U.S. border alone or, more recently, who have been forcibly separated from adults they were traveling with under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Since 2013, Heartland has received more than $180 million from the federal government for housing children in its Chicago-area facilities. It’s among the five largest operators of child detention centers in the nation. Yet last year, a series of ProPublica Illinois investigations has revealed, the agency failed to provide adequate supervision by qualified staff at its facilities; there have been allegations of sex between kids, unsanitary conditions, and mistreatment by staff. Though Heartland has denied all wrongdoing, the agency shuttered four of its youth facilities in Des Plaines earlier this year, saying it would devote more resources to its five city shelters in Bronzeville, Englewood, Beverly, and Rogers Park. These facilities have capacity for about 400 kids and, according to Heartland, about 3,000 kids pass through them every year.

After the red truck reached the hotel door, its driver, a trim middle-aged white man with a mustache, ruddy complexion, and jovial demeanor, hopped out and approached the protesters. “Listen: Principals, superintendents, teachers from public schools have a conference in this building and in the Hyatt,” he explained to a protester who’d covered most of her face with a red bandanna, adding that he’s a superintendent. “Public schools are with you. So don’t be jumping their cars.”

“The dude said there’s also like a teachers’ conference here tonight?” she said after he walked away, her voice rising.

“They shouldn’t be at the fucking hotel then,” a fellow protester responded decisively.

Protesting—especially when you’re undocumented, low-income, a member of a marginalized group, or otherwise disadvantaged and your opponent is not a person but a massive and well-respected social service agency founded by Jane Addams in the 1880s and selling $300 fund-raiser tickets—requires careful strategy. It’s easy to dismiss a gaggle of radical activists hiding their faces, brandishing hyperbolic signs, and blowing rusty tubas as nothing more than bored rabble-rousers fighting the latest in a series of windmills. But there were fewer such dismissals of the hundreds of thousands of people who shut down the Loop to protest the Trump administration during the Women’s March in January 2017. Some of those now picketing Heartland were there for all the big protests, too, when moral indignation was reserved more for those who’d chosen to sit it out. Some had protested unjust immigration policies and policing practices long before Trump’s inauguration. And now they were continuing to make noise about things they found repugnant and unacceptable.

Protesters formed a line to block rush hour traffic building along Wacker.
Protesters formed a line to block rush hour traffic building along Wacker.Credit: Maya Dukmasova

About a week earlier, the protesters had issued an open letter to Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of PolicyLink, a national racial justice nonprofit. Blackwell had been slated to be the keynote speaker at the gala. The letter, cosigned by nearly 30 political and community organizations, stated that the groups were “fighting for nothing less than the abolition of all detention centers, including the clandestine ones jailing children that are run by Heartland Alliance.” The letter leaned on Blackwell’s own history of boosting prison and police abolitionist ideas and decarceration to make a moral argument: if she were really about it, she’d withdraw and publicly denounce Heartland.

“As soon as the issue was brought to Angela’s attention,” she did withdraw, her spokesperson said in a November 17 e-mail to Free Heartland Kids, though she didn’t issue any statements.

The organizers also mounted a campaign against the other headliner, Eileen Mitchell, president of AT&T Illinois and former chief of staff for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She also didn’t ultimately speak at the event, though a spokesman for AT&T did, Heartland confirmed.

As Rozalinda Borcilă prepared for the protest on Wednesday evening, gathering with fellow demonstrators pulling on frilly dresses over black streetwear to mock the gala, she spoke with handily quotable rhetorical flourish about their goals, periodically citing statistics and reports to drive home her arguments.

“The process by which children are kept [at Heartland’s facilities] is obfuscated and couched in all kinds of euphemisms, and it’s rebranded as care,” Borcilă said. “It’s important to us that we hit Heartland and we hit them hard, because they’re seen as a legitimate social service agency that’s very prestigious, they have a lot of social and political capital,” she continued, “pushing them to where what they’re doing is no longer socially acceptable, so you cannot show your face in public and be a do-goody liberal social service agency if you are actually benefiting from incarcerating children.”

Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Among the points the protesters tried to convey to their audience through chants and signs was Heartland’s connection with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As an Office of Refugee Resettlement contractor, Heartland has no choice but to be a conduit for information that can be used to deport people. ICE—usually the federal law enforcement agency that conducts sweeps to detain undocumented immigrants—has access to databases into which children’s U.S.-based sponsors must submit fingerprints and other information in order to get custody of a child housed in a government-contracted shelter like those operated by Heartland. It’s been reported that since the Trump administration’s immigration crackdowns, more sponsors are reluctant to claim custody of kids for fear of being detained themselves or leading authorities to undocumented relatives.

“This is a much longer, much deeper campaign that has to do with starting a movement for the total decarceration of migrant children,” Borcilă said. She pointed out that, according to Heartland itself, the vast majority of children in its facilities are released to family members. “Read that backwards: The vast majority of them have family members to begin with, and to be detained for five months, seven months, ten months when you have a mother in this county, when you have an uncle in this country, is outrageous.”

About an hour before the Heartland gala began at 5:30 PM, the sidewalk in front of the Swissôtel was teeming with protesters. Two people in frilly pink prom dresses were disguised as effigies of Evelyn Diaz, Heartland Alliance’s president, and Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, a prominent legal aid organization also under the Heartland umbrella (McCarthy was in fact one of the headliners of the 2017 Women’s March). The protesters’ heads were covered in garish cardboard replicas of the women’s faces and they waved massive clawlike hands smeared with red paint. Chants of “Free the kids, close the camps!” “These are concentration camps, they’re not shelters!,” and “Free them all!” filled the air to incessant drumbeats. Swissôtel guards hovered nearby, staving off people who stepped ever more boldly in front of cars trying to pull into the driveway.

By 4:50 PM the protesters had unfurled a giant green banner that read “Heartland and ICE imprisoning children for profit” and formed a line to block off rush hour traffic building along Wacker. Protesters along the sidewalk handed out fliers densely packed with text excoriating Heartland and the Trump administration and outlining demands. A man breached the hotel lobby and furtively handed out trifold pamphlets with quotes from children about conditions at Heartland’s shelters first reported in the media.

Some hotel guests and passersby stopped to chat with the protesters. Others didn’t hide their disdain. “I can’t believe people aren’t just running them over,” a pudgy white man wearing a conference lanyard said as he marched into the hotel lobby. “I’d just run them over.”

It took about 20 minutes for the police to arrive and begin to clear traffic; the protesters complied with their orders. Officers used their bikes to confine the demonstrators to the sidewalk where people took turns making proclamations from atop a flower bed parapet. The demonstration continued past the end of the gala at 8:30 PM. Before it was all over a Swissôtel guard allegedly broke one protester’s megaphone and an altercation was reported between a person filming the scene and a gala attendee who allegedly trash-talked the protesters (the person filming was briefly detained but then released).

Heartland president Evelyn Diaz wrote to the Reader two days after the event, expressing her organization’s support of free speech and their belief that the protesters care about the well-being of migrant children and their relatives. But she chastised them for “conflating the help we offer to these children with the policies that put them at our borders” and accused them of “spreading disinformation and lies about our programs. Their actions are not only unfair; they are dangerous. They are demonstrating outside of our shelters, creating fear among the very children they claim to want to protect. We are also concerned that their escalating rhetoric may provoke violent acts that endanger our staff, our volunteers, and the children themselves.”

Although the protesters have been demanding community-created alternatives to the existing detention centers, Diaz said that closing more Heartland shelters wouldn’t improve any kids’ lives or set children free. “Instead, they would enter into for-profit prison systems across the country.”

Asked what Heartland would say to people who might be reticent to support or donate to the agency after witnessing the gala protest, Diaz cited Heartland’s long history of providing legal aid and social services to immigrants and refugees. Contracting with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to house migrant children is in line with Heartland’s mission, she argued, adding that its facilities offer “a nurturing, caring environment . . . they are the only legal and humanitarian option for children who arrive at our borders without their parents.”

Diaz wrote that her agency wouldn’t be closing any more facilities or changing operations in response to the protests and noted that Heartland “faced similar backlash when we chose to serve people living with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 90s. We did not bow to the pressure of ill-informed and misguided attempts to shut down our programs then, and we will not do so now.”

Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Diaz and the protesters are essentially accusing one another of the same thing: caring more about their own interests than the welfare of migrant children. The arguments, however, are built from radically different premises: Heartland assumes a pragmatic stance, taking it as a given that some contractor must house the migrant children because of the constraints of government policies, however unjust. The people demonstrating against Heartland’s gala are making broader political and philosophical arguments about freedom, justice, and open borders and pushing their audience to consider that children could be both protected and in the care of people they know.

Ultimately, it’s all rhetoric until one side caves. As the protesters see it, Heartland already blinked once when it closed four of its suburban shelters in the wake of damning reports. That Maryville Academy, a smaller, Catholic social services provider moved to open two new Chicago area facilities at the same time isn’t a sign of defeat to the people demonstrating. “We don’t actually know that Maryville opened to detain the children that used to be at Heartland, Maryville maybe would have opened them anyway,” Borcilă said, rejecting the idea that the only options are Heartland’s facilities or something worse and noting that protests against detention centers around the country have yielded positive results for migrants. Indeed, as a former Heartland staffer has written, external pressure on the agency has led to speedier reunification between kids and their families.

In the heat of the traffic-jamming demonstration on Wednesday, a man with a British accent behind the wheel of an SUV caught by the blockade poked his head out of his window. “You’re putting my kids at risk,” he exclaimed, asking to be let through so he could pick them up from school.

“Don’t you want to abolish ICE?” one of the protesters shouted back.

“Sure I do but I can’t do that right now, let us through for God’s sake!”

The line didn’t budge. Exasperated, the man first reversed his car, then suddenly accelerated at the demonstrators, stopping short of a woman’s feet and eliciting shouts of outrage from her comrades. He pulled back again and maneuvered west out of the traffic jam. Meanwhile, conversations were also percolating on Twitter and Facebook. Several people posted complaints about not being able to get home on time; some of the protesters responded and even appeared to gain traction with their arguments.

During last year’s protest of Heartland’s gala, Little Village Solidarity Network managed to get someone inside the event to briefly cause a scene. They decided this year that it wouldn’t be worth it to give the agency $300 and risk arrest to make moral appeals to a room full of people already on Heartland’s side. Instead, they solicited the attention of people who might otherwise have gone through the day without a passing thought of the detention of migrant children in the city. This way, the disruption can gain momentum and put Heartland on the defensive, Borcilă says. “Our strength is on the street.”   v