Detention officers allegedly locked migrant mothers and children in a dark room, took away internet access, and threatened to take their children away from them after some went on a hunger strike to protest conditions at a Texas immigration detention center, according to lawyers and advocates. In a five-day strike that ended Saturday, about 78 women went on a hunger and work strike or acted in solidarity to demand better food and medical care, as well as their release from the Karnes Detention Center.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers took away internet access and email privileges, threatened mothers with deportation, or told them that they could lose custody of their children, three individuals advocating on behalf of two separate detainees told ThinkProgress. Three mothers, and their children between the ages of two and 11, were also placed in the “medical infirmary” on the first day of the hunger strike, advocates said. Mohammad Abdollahi, the advocacy director at the immigration rights group Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), explained that the infirmary reportedly acted as a solitary confinement cell for the three families.
The lights would only turn on when they were getting fed.
“They were placed in a dark room,” Abdollahi said. “The lights would only turn on when they were getting fed. One woman cupped her hands, asking, ‘You can do this to me, but why are you doing this to my child?’”
Abdollahi added, “There was sensory deprivation involved, preceded with the threat that they would lose custody of their children. Other women emailed us frantically that [the three families] were being sent to a medical infirmary. They went to the medical section [at the detention center] where ICE was interrogating them to protest, so they were able to get the woman with her two-year-old released.”
Though ICE has denied that a hunger strike took place, advocates told McClatchy over the weekend that “investigators from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties are expected to talk to the mothers about their allegation that they and their children were assigned to the facility’s medical clinic to punish them for the hunger protest.”
In a section dedicated to hunger strikes, a 2011 ICE handbook stated, “Any detainee who does not eat for 72 hours shall be referred to the medical department for evaluation and possible treatment by medical and mental health personnel. Prior to 72 hours, staff may refer a detainee for medical evaluation, and when clinically indicated, medical staff may refer the detainee to a hospital.” The handbook also stated that hunger striking detainees could be kept in isolation.
“In terms of conditions within the [Karnes] facility, one of the biggest issues has to do with medical conditions and the lack of appropriate food,” Christina Fialho, the co-founder of the immigration advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), said. CIVIC has affiliated visitation programs at 39 detention centers nationwide. Fialho has not visited Karnes, but is advocating on behalf of a detainee named Sonia.
Because Karnes County, Texas sits on one of the most active drilling sites used for fracking, the water at the detention center has to be heavily chlorinated, which often causes stomach issues for detainees. The food provided was previously described as “inedible” by other detention center visitors.
Lynette [last name withheld by request], a detention visitor told ThinkProgress, has known Sonia and her children for 15 years. Lynette hadn’t known that Sonia attempted to cross the border with her children until immigration officials caught them at the border last year. They are keeping in contact through email. Since the hunger protest, email access at Karnes was reportedly cut off for at least one day. Lynette, who went on a two-day solidarity hunger strike for Sonia, said “they all had lost weight since I’ve seen them in June. Her [nine-year-old] son was given clothes when they first arrived and the pair of pants he was given now falls off of him, so clearly he’s lost a significant amount of weight.”
“What [Sonia] and other women are doing is not going to cafeteria, but instead purchasing food for their children from the commissary,” Lynette said. Women are paid $3 a day for working at the center, but a bottle of water reportedly costs $2.50. “Countless mothers, like Sonia, are watching their children deteriorate because they don’t want to eat the food. Mothers are watching their own children waste away in front of them. They’re saying ‘free me. Free my children.’”
Between 25 and 30 women who went on strike have been in detention between six and ten months. Abdollahi, who’s advocating on behalf of a 26-year-old female Honduran detainee named Kenia and her two-year-old daughter, said that women who were caught in the past trying to cross the border, have been denied bond to secure their release. Advocates said that the women on strike have all passed a credible fear interview, a preliminary step in the asylum process to determine whether they would face persecution or death if they were sent back to their countries.
Under the 1997 Flores vs. Meese settlement, which calls for children to be released on bond to appropriate family custody, the children have been granted bond. But because children have to be released to a parent or point of contact — in this case, their mothers — Fialho said that those children cannot leave the detention center. “ICE refuses to release them from their mothers, even when the mothers appoint a guardian on the outside” she said.
An influx of 68,445 Latin American adults with children crossed the southern border last year. In response, the Obama administration adopted an “aggressive deterrence strategy” to lock up women and their children in detention under a “no release” policy as a way to deter future migrants from making the trek. Across various immigration detention centers, many are denied bond based on a 2003 ruling in which former Attorney General John Ashcroft argued against granting bond to a Haitian immigrant because it would encourage future illegal entries.