Since this summer, mothers and children fleeing horrific violence in Central America have been locked up in immigrant detention facilities. These prisons for families are run by for-profit prison corporations that make money by locking people up and have a long history of abusing those trusted to their care. Although it costs the taxpayer $266 per person per day to lock up a mother or child at these detention centers (according to Senate estimates), conditions are harsh. There have been allegations of sexual assault, small children are not allowed to crawl, and mothers are threatened with deportation if they do not keep their children quiet. Families are given highly-processed food to eat and their drinking water is contaminated with fracking chemicals. As a result many children have developed health problems and are loosing weight. They are denied adequate medical treatment and mental health care. All of this only exacerbates their trauma rather than helping them to heal.
This Monday, a group of detained mothers decided that enough was enough and launched a hunger strike for their freedom. They released a joint statement, signed by 78 women, saying:
“In the name of all the mothers, residents at the detention center in Karnes City (Texas), we are writing this petition asking for our freedom and for freedom for our children. We have taken the initiative of uniting ourselves and initiating a Hunger Strike, so that you can see and feel our desperation… We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status and we are being treated like criminals. We are not criminals nor do we pose any threat to this country.”
“During this Hunger Strike, no mother will work in the detention center. We will not use any of the services provided by this place until we have been heard and our freedom has been granted. We all want FREEDOM!… We know that any mother would do the same thing that we are doing for our children.”
Many of the mothers involved in this hunger strike, including my dear friend Sonia, have been behind bars with their children for over eight months. Although they and their children have passed credible fear interviews and are fighting asylum claims, they are stuck in detention because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has refused to release them on discretion. Although we gathered over 700 signatures for Sonia’s petition (which you can still sign here) and held a successful call-in campaign on her behalf, ICE director Sarah Saldaña has refused to release Sonia on her own recognizance, suggesting that this mother and her children are somehow a risk to public security.
In response to this denial of their freedom, the mothers made the courageous decision to initiate their hunger strike and work stoppage, which has been continuing since Monday. ICE has retaliated against these women for speaking out. On Monday night, three women with their children were placed in solitary confinement in dark cells with no separate toilet cubicle: a mother was humiliated by having to use the bathroom in front of her 11-year-old son.
ICE has also apparently been denying women to access their emails, and phone calls from the facility are often being terminated. Lawyers have reported that calls with their clients are being cut off as soon as the words “hunger strike” or “fast” are mentioned, suggesting that ICE is eavesdropping on what are meant to be confidential calls. These actions are contrary to ICE’s public statement that it “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 is clear that through these actions, ICE has tried to cut off the hunger-strikers from the outside world, part of their overall response of denying that a strike is happening. In response to inquiries by reporters, ICE officials have said that there is no such action taking place. But these strategies are having the opposite effect. In a call today, one of the hunger striking women reports that detained mothers are seeing on the news that ICE is denying their strike, and that as a result, more women are joining in.
Those who have gone in to visit the women this week report finding them in very good spirits, with an unusual feeling of excitement in the air. The women are empowered by joint action, and far from backing down, they are stepping up to meet the challenge. In an email received just this afternoon, the first message that has gotten through all week, Sonia wrote: “we have been on the hunger strike since Monday and God-willing they will give us good news, because we won’t start to eat again until they give us answers to our situation.”
When we last spoke on the phone on Monday night, just as the hunger strike was launching, Sonia told me that, in difficult times like this, you make really close friends. “Se sabe lo que es la unidad”, she told me, you learn what unity really means.
Can we follow the brave leadership of women like Sonia and the other mothers on hunger strike? Can we stand up, raise our voices, and take action in solidarity with them to learn what unity truly feels like and what true unity can achieve? I personally feel compelled to do so, and so starting tomorrow morning, I will be starting a solidarity fast. Whether or not you feel able to join the fast, there are many actions you can take to support the hunger strikers, help their voices be heard, and let them know that they are not alone.
How You can Support these Brave Women
- Sign the petition online, available here: http://bit.ly/endkarnes
- Call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Sarah Saldaña at 202 732-3000 and tell her to immediately release every mother and child being held in family detention facilities.
- Join the online protest to express your solidarity. Take a photo using #FastingForFreedom and #EndFamilyDetention and post it to social media. Visit http://tinyurl.com/qbquuah for more details.
- Hold a solidarity vigil. Supporters in Texas have been holding vigils each evening outside the detention center starting at 7 pm Central time.
- Educate others and stay updated on this issue by visiting endfamilydetention.com