Group plans to "occupy" Statehouse for immigration protest

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A group protesting federal immigration policies is planning to "occupy" Rhode Island's Statehouse on Thursday, after a months-long effort to get a detention facility closed.

Former Democratic state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who helps lead Never Again Action Rhode Island, said he's bringing a toothbrush and pillow there in the afternoon. Members of the Jewish youth movement plan to construct a religious structure called a sukkah and stay through the evening to coincide with Sukkot, the Jewish holiday commemorating the desert wandering of the Jews.

They want state leaders to commit to closing the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island, which is used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We have, for months now, been inviting, asking, begging our state leaders to take seriously the commitments that many of them have made to step up as a state and fight back against the Trump administration's war on immigrants and attacks on our immigrant neighbors in Rhode Island," Regunberg said. "We're going to take our demands to their door and we're going to wait until we finally get a response."

Anyone in the building after it closes at 4:30 p.m. is typically asked to leave and warned they could face arrest for trespassing if they refuse, according to Capitol Police.

Eighteen members of the group, including Regunberg, were arrested for blocking vehicle access to the detention facility in July . Protesters returning to the facility in August and a prison guard drove his truck through the group. Investigators are looking into the operation of the truck and the deployment of pepper spray by other prison personnel.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said the governor understands there are concerns about the facility and is open to reviewing future legislation restricting the operation of private prisons.

It's unclear whether Raimondo has the authority to order a closure. The detention facility is a quasi-public institution run by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation. If the General Assembly tried to restrict private prisons, the legislation could apply to Wyatt depending on how it's worded.

Regunberg said that in addition to closing the detention facility, the group wants state leaders to release all ICE detainees held there, pass legislation banning the operation of private prisons in the state and end all state and local collaboration with ICE. He said he hopes that "peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights in a public building" on Thursday won't be arrested, particularly since the guard who drove the truck and those that sprayed pepper spray have not been.

The Boston office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started holding detainees at Wyatt again in March, a decade after a man's death there ended the practice. In 2008, 34-year-old Hiu Lui "Jason" Ng Eng died of advanced liver cancer while held there. When the immigration agency ended its contract with Wyatt in 2009, it said an internal investigation found a lack of communication about Ng's health care needs.

About 130 detainees are held there currently, according to Wyatt.