Renato Quintero, a 50-year-old janitor in Portland, Oregon, has firsthand experience with private prison corporations. Originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, Quintero immigrated to the United States and eventually became a citizen. But his family hasn’t been as lucky. One of his cousins, who came to the United States as a child but never became a legal resident, was sent to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, after being stopped for a traffic violation. The center provides service to Immigration Customs and Enforcement, but is privately run by a firm called GEO Group. Quintero’s cousin was eventually deported back to Mexico, which put financial and emotional strain on the entire family.
During a city council meeting last December, Quintero was one of several Portland residents who testified in favor of the city divesting from two corporations, in particular: Wells Fargo, for its financing of the for-profit prison operators CoreCivic and GEO Group; and Caterpillar, the construction equipment maker that provides bulldozers to the Israeli government. President Trump has also said that he will rely on Caterpillar to build a border wall with Mexico.
“That was something that affected me,” Quintero said. Like many other immigrants in Portland, he was frustrated with the city’s investments in corporations that he said take advantage of vulnerable communities. He felt that went against the spirit of the Portland’s official status as a “sanctuary city,” which is one with policies that limit local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration officials.
An April 5 vote exceeded Quintero’s expectations. Through pressure from a coalition of grassroots organizations, the Portland City Council voted to halt all new investments in corporations – not just Wells Fargo and Caterpillar. The unanimous vote made Portland the first major U.S. city that has promised to end new investments in corporate securities – debts that are repaid to the city with interest. For now, Portland will continue investing in its current corporate securities, but will not renew them when the final one matures in 2019. Instead, Portland will invest in non-corporate options like U.S. government bonds, and is in talks of creating a municipal bank. The city’s investments total over $1.7 billion, and about one-third of that is in corporations.
But ceasing investment in corporate securities will come at a price. Jen Clodius, Portland Office of Management and Finance spokeswoman, says that the city will likely lose $4.5 million in revenue a year.
“Oregon has been a sanctuary state for more than 50 years. So we’re constantly trying to be responsible neighbors and invest wisely,” Clodius said. “But by the same token, we also want to have general funds available so that the city can operate, so that we have money to put into infrastructure, fixing potholes, and supporting homeless shelters.”
The commissioners’ decision came, in part, from wanting to save time spent on analyzing individual companies’ social responsibility. But activists say the driving force was a coalition of grassroots groups representing marginalized communities and divestment campaigns. Those who testified at city council meetings said that they didn’t want tax money to go toward companies that fund the Dakota Access pipeline, private prison corporations, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The coalition originated from a comprehensive framework called the Freedom Cities movement that came out of the New York Worker Center Federation, which is a multiracial coalition of immigrants and workers that strive to build worker-led movements. Following the 2016 election, federation members met to brainstorm what cities needed to be safer and welcoming for Muslims, black people, and immigrants. Their ideas included economic justice, workers rights, divestment from militarized policing, and investment in communities.
Enlace, an international alliance of organizations that works for racial and economic justice, and a co-convener of the New York Worker Center Federation, spearheaded a Portland Freedom Cities campaign by coalescing over 25 grassroots social, economic, and racial justice organizations. Their demands focused on divestment from companies that they said backed human rights abuses.
Throughout the years, the organizations in the coalition have won piecemeal victories, like pushing Portland to create a socially responsible investment policy. But they felt that it wasn’t enough. Following a national movement to divest from Wells Fargo, the coalition convinced the city council to temporarily stop investing in all corporations last December.
“I think with that city council was perhaps hoping that we would just go away,” said Jamie Trinkle, Enlace’s senior campaign and research coordinator. But the coalition held community forums, circulated petitions, and asked immigrants and people of color to testify against corporations that they said were destroying and exploiting their communities, like Wells Fargo and Caterpillar. “We were able to come back at the end of that temporary period and show really strong resistance and deep connection among all of our issues,” she added.
Hyung Kyu Nam, a member of the committee that ensured the city was investing in socially responsible companies, said that the vote is significant because Portland was willing to lose money. “It sends a message that despite what they’re trying do at the federal level, that people getting involved in policy at the local level … can take back control and resist.” Since the vote, Nam has become involved in creating a municipal public bank in Portland.
Quintero hopes that Portland’s vote to end new corporate investments will be the first of many policies that make life easier for immigrants. He hopes that others will be granted a pathway to citizenship like he was. If nothing else, he says, the vote sends a message to the Trump administration that if “you want our money, you have to treat us well.”
Melissa Hellmann wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Melissa is the YES! Surdna reporting fellow and graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has written for the Associated Press, TIME, The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, Time Out, and SF Weekly. Follow her on Twitter @M_Hellmann or email her at Melissa@yesmagazine.org.