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Here’s something you won’t see everyday: protesters outside the Seattle headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proclaiming social injustice.

On Thursday, about two dozen immigrant-rights advocates and other demonstrators gathered outside the foundation’s offices, demanding it dump its investments in one of the nation’s largest operators of private prisons.

Specifically, they want the Gates Foundation — whose co-chairman, Bill Gates, has been a steadfast supporter of immigration — to divert the $2.2 million that its trust invests in The GEO Group.

The world’s largest operator of private prisons and detention centers, GEO runs 59 facilities across the country, including the 1,500-bed Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

“This isn’t just a moral argument,” said William Winters, senior campaign adviser with the Latino advocacy group, which organized the protest.

“If the Gates Foundation wants to have the effect in the world they say they want to have, then investing in private prisons is the antithesis of that.”

Organizers said they staged the demonstration after getting no response to a letter they sent to Bill Gates a month ago.

After the demonstration, a handful of protesters were invited inside, where they presented officials with nearly 11,000 signatures collected online.

Gates Foundation spokesman Jonah Goldman, in an earlier
conversation, said the foundation and the trust are separate and that the foundation does not control the trust’s investment decisions.

Trust investments, he said, are “the reason we have about $4 billion a year to spend on vaccines, AIDS drugs, on U.S. education and the millennium scholars program — on all the work the foundation does in Seattle and around the world.”

He noted the $2.2 million invested in GEO, compared to the $36 billion foundation trust and GEO, a $2 billion company.

Questions about the foundation’s investments have been raised before, forcing the foundation in the past to issue a statement explaining its policy.

The Gateses guide endowment managers to vote proxies “consistent with the principles of good governance,” the statement said, pointing out that the foundation has defined areas in which it will not invest, such as tobacco stocks.

Winters, who was among those invited inside, said foundation representatives assured protesters that their letter would be submitted to the trust.

He said they wanted to be sure protesters understood all the good the foundation does around the world. It’s something Presente acknowledges and appreciates, Winters said.

“But by investing in GEO, it’s capitalizing an organization that then uses that money to incarcerate more people, which seems to run counter to the foundation’s own mission.”

With Congress declining to act on overhauling the nation’s immigration system, demonstrations over detention and deportation across the country have become more frequent.

One after another, Thursday’s presenters spoke of the effect detention has on families. Winters read portions of statements by some who he said signed the petition, including a Gates scholar from California who said that while he is forever in the foundation’s debt for his education, he is “saddened to know that some of that money was due to investment in the prison industry complex.”

Jose Moreno, 25, who participated in a recent hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center, said in Spanish that he wanted to be part of it to draw attention to the conditions inside the facility, saying, it’s “jail not a detention.”

Maru Mora Villalpando, who is in the country illegally and active in an anti-deportation movement called, Not1More, said it was morally wrong for the foundation to profit from separating families.

“The Gates Foundation should be ashamed for putting money into the business of separating families and into the business of making money off those that are the most vulnerable,” she said.

Initially “curious” about the protest, Goldman said Gates Foundation officials “totally understand the passion that comes from this.”

The allegations made against GEO seem deplorable, he said, “and we certainly understand people standing up for justice. That’s the reason we come to work every day.”

Staff reporter Sandi Doughton contributed to this report. Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or On Twitter @turnbullL.