For the second time this spring, mothers held in a southern Texas privately-run immigrant detention center with their children have staged a hunger strike and work stoppage to protest their inhumane conditions of confinement and demand immediate release for themselves and their families.
Ten mothers detained at Karnes Detention Camp began the peaceful protest on Tuesday, vowing to eat only one meal per day until their demands are met, Mohammad Abdollahi, advocacy director for the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (Raices), told Common Dreams Wednesday morning.
The women's demands echo those issued by dozens of mothers who staged a similar peaceful protest at the facility in late March and early April to coincide with the Easter holiday.
The hunger strike launched on Tuesday aims high in the chain of command, calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña to reverse course from the Obama administration's controversial policy of detaining families seeking asylum, and instead, grant the strikers parole and release.
The women say the situation is urgent.
They report harrowing conditions at the prison, which has a capacity of 532 but is slated to expand to more than double its current beds. People held there are compensated just $3 a day for working to run the facility, denied their rights to meet with legal aid workers, forced to drink water contaminated by fracking waste, and their children are suffering ill health and psychological effects related to their incarceration, according to a letter sent to Colorlines.
Women have alleged sexual abuse and assault from prison guards and staff, prompting community protests outside the facility.
Abdollahi, who is involved in direct support, compared the facility to an internment camp: "The conditions are absolutely horrendous. Parents are not allowed to be parents, to decide what their kids eat, how many times their diapers have changed. They have to ask permission for milk to nurse their children with."
These conditions are "very harmful and detrimental," Abdollahi added, because a majority of people in the prison are fleeing violence.
Delmi Cruz is a 37-year-old mother and asylum-seeker from Honduras who has been detained at the facility with her 11-year-old son for over six months. "It’s very hard here, the food isn’t adequate, it’s awful, horrible...the children who eat it become sick," Cruz told the Guardian, according to an article published Tuesday. "My son has horrible stomach pain and is still very sick."
Cruz is participating in the hunger strike despite what she described as retaliation from guards for her part in the earlier protest, when she was placed in the medical unit's solitary confinement along with her son.
Abdollahi said there are signs this punishment is beginning again: "Cruz called us frightened on Tuesday, saying that women are being called to medical and there has been retaliation."
Bob Libal, executive director of the advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership, told Common Dreams that the women on hunger strike are victims of the Obama administration's harsh policies towards people who seek asylum in the United States.
"Between 2009 and 2014, the policy was not to detain asylum-seeking families," said Libal. "This was after a very controversial policy during the Bush administration of locking up families. Many groups were involved in organizing and legislative efforts to end the practice of detaining families, and in 2009, the Obama administration said it was ending this practice."
"However," Libal added, "last summer after the increase in the number of refugee kids made the news, the administration reversed course."
Amid this political climate, the Karnes facility was opened by ICE last summer under orders from the Department of Homeland Security to detain asylum-seekers at the border, rather than grant them bond.
GEO Group, the private company that runs the prison, has faced numerous accusations of abuse, medical neglect, violence, and civil rights violations, including hundreds of lawsuits, at its prisons and mental health facilities around the world. A report released on Wednesday by Grassroots Leadership reveals that GEO Group, along with other private prison corporations, has aggressively lobbied for harsher immigration policies.
Outside the Karnes prison, people across the country are mobilizing to defend the people impacted by these policies.