About 40 women being held at the privately-run Karnes Family Detention Center in southern Texas launched a hunger strike this week to demand their release and the release of their families, vowing on Tuesday not to eat, work, or use the services at the facility until they are freed.
Nearly 80 women being held at the center, many of whom are said to be asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, signed a letter stating that they have all been refused bond despite having established a credible fear of violence if they are sent back to Central America—a key factor in the U.S. government's process for screening detained immigrants to allow them amnesty.
"We deserve to be treated with some dignity and that our rights, to the immigration process, are respected," the letter reads. "You should know that this is just the beginning and we will not stop [the hunger strike] until we achieve our goals. This strike will continue until each of us is freed."
The letter also states that many of the children held in the camp are losing weight and that their "health is deteriorating." Many of the families have been detained for as long as 10 months.
One woman, 26-year old Honduran mother Kenia Galeano, decried the center's treatment of the families in a phone interview with McClatchy on Tuesday. "We’re many mothers, not just me," she said. "We want freedom for our children. It’s not right to continue to detain us."
Galeano, who shares a room with three other mothers and their children, also said that her two-year-old son has become depressed and lost weight due to the culturally inappropriate food.
According to the letter, some of the mothers were also left behind in the detention center, while their children were granted bond. "We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status and we are being treated like delinquents," the letter reads. "We are not delinquents nor do we pose any threat to this country."
"This strike will continue until each of us is freed."
Karnes, which is run by the private corrections company GEO Group, has come under fire in the past for its treatment of the children who are detained there, with reports of weight loss and forced separation from their mothers, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department has denied those allegations.
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ICE also claimed it was unaware of any residents actually participating in the strike, saying in a statement on Wednesday that the agency "fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, and all detainees, including those in family residential facilities such as Karnes, are permitted to do so."
It also said it was investigating claims that members of a nonprofit advocacy group encouraged the women to take part in the hunger strike—a charge which activists deny.
Cristina Parker, immigration programs director at the Texas-based immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership, told the Guardian on Tuesday, "This is something that has been rippling through the centre almost since it opened. I don’t believe at all that they were coached into doing this."
According to Parker, the center is now blocking access to internet and telephone facilities for all of its detainees, regardless of whether they are participating in the hunger strike.
At least two women who signed the letter were also placed into isolation with their children in Karnes's clinic, leading about half of those who initially pledged to take part in the hunger strike to drop out, according to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
Johana De Leon, a legal assistant with the nonprofit, told McClatchy that other mothers were warned they could lose custody of their children if they participated.
In addition to its mistreatment of children, Karnes has also been accused of sexual misconduct by guards and denial of critical medical care for detainees, among other charges. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general reported in February that there was no evidence to support the allegations.