Immigrant Women Launch Indefinite Hunger Strike, Asking To Be Freed From Detention Center

CREDIT: Cristina Parker

Immigrant advocates protest outside the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas in October 2015.

Detained women seeking asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief began an indefinite hunger strike at an immigration detention center in Texas on Wednesday night, sending hand-written letters to the federal government calling for their release.

At least 27 immigrant women refused dinner on Wednesday at the T. Don Hutto detention center, which is run by the private prison company Corrections Corporation of America. The majority of the women came to the U.S. after fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, and many have already passed their “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” interviews — a preliminary step in the asylum application process.

The Hutto detention center originally opened in 2006 as a family detention center, but families are no longer sent there thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s landmark settlement seeking to improve the conditions for children and their mothers. The detention center remains an all-women facility, however.

America, a Mexican national, wrote in her letter that she has been in Hutto for five months because she can’t pay the bail. “I do not have the help of no one and I am asking as a favor if you can help me I would appreciate it so much because they do not want to lower my bail,” according to an English translation of her letter. America also indicated that the commissary prices for immigrants to buy food has “gone up a lot,” and that she does not receive adequate medical treatment.

Another detainee, Magdiela, a Guatemalan national, wrote that she was subjected to threats that would result in “negative outcomes of our cases.” Marcela, a Salvadoran national, wrote that she had re-entered the United States because she was “afraid to go back to my country because my life is in danger there” and that she had been denied the ability to pay for bail. Nancy, another Salvadoran national, also left for the second time because of domestic violence and was denied bail.

Other women also pointed to a consistent pattern of neglect, the inability to pay bail bonds, and the inability to leave detention.

A recent Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) study found that detention could exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety, putting immigrant women at high risk for re-experiencing past traumas when they’re held in conditions with inadequate care.

“Eighteen different women have written us letters explaining their reason and intent to strike and they’ve been very clear that they have one demand only and that’s release,” said an organizer working with the volunteer-run advocacy group Texans United For Families (TUFF). The organizer, who asked to remain anonymous, told ThinkProgress that the women on hunger strike are mostly from Central America, but that they also come from Mexico, Brazil, and at least one European country.

The organizer is part of an advocacy group that rallied on Wednesday night to call on the government to shut down detention centers across the country. The rally featured a Spanish-language banner reading “There’s no life without liberty” so that some of the women in detention would be able to see the message. “We’re there to send a message that we know this is happening and we’ll know if [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is retaliating,” the organizer said.

The timing of the Hutto hunger strike is noteworthy as the Obama administration is under intense scrutiny to sharply curtail and change the controversial practice of detaining Central American mothers and children in family detention centers.

It’s unclear whether ICE will retaliate against the Hutto hunger strikers. However, hunger strikes at other immigration detention facilities have led to retaliation from immigration officials in the past. For instance, after South Asian male asylum seekers at Texas and Lousiana detention facilities initiated a hunger strike to protest their potential deportation, three of the hunger strikers were moved to Etowah Detention Center — a facility notorious for its abuse allegations — and prevented from making any contact or communication with their families.

Other hunger strikers in the Louisiana facility have reportedly faced retaliation like having their water supply turned off at times and being unable to transfer money from the commissary to their phone accounts, which has interfered with their ability to contact the outside world. And when 78 immigrant women went on a five-day hunger strike in April at the Karnes County Residential Center, ICE reportedly locked some of the women and children in a dark room. ICE also threatened them with deportation.

On Wednesday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals set a six-month limit on immigration detention to prevent immigrants accused of some criminal acts from being detained indefinitely, a practice that the judges called unconstitutional. Because of court backlogs, many immigrants contesting their deportation “regularly spends many months and sometimes years in detention” while awaiting their immigration proceedings, the court document indicated.

Many of the asylum-seeking hunger strikers at the Texas and Louisana facilities have been in detention for upwards of two years.