Forty mothers who came to the United States from Central America, seeking asylum, launched a hunger strike on Monday to protest their detainment. The mothers and their children are being held at an immigration detention center in Karnes City, Texas, while they await their immigration hearings.
McClatchy DC reported that while more than 80 women had initially signed a petition to take part in the strike, several dropped out after two women were placed in isolation.
Johana De Leon, a legal assistant with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, told McClatchy DC that some of the mothers were warned they could “lose custody of their children” if they participated in the strike.
Part of the letter, which was obtained and translated by Colorlines, says:
“During this time, no mother will work in the detention center, nor will we send our children to school, nor will we use any services here, until we are heard and approved: we want our FREEDOM.”
Colorlines reported that the mothers who signed the letter have all been interviewed by immigration officials, and have established a “credible fear of persecution or torture if they were to be deported.” While some have not been given the opportunity to post bond for release, others have a bond set too high for them to pay.
Colorlines’ Aura Bogado reported that when she contacted the facility, she spoke with an anonymous immigration officer who laughed at the strike, calling it something the women’s attorneys had convinced them to do.
Kenia Galeano, a 26-year-old mother who came from Honduras with her 2-year-old son, told McClatchy DC that instead of finding the shelter they were seeking when they came to the US, she and the other mothers are being treated like prisoners. She said that while she has been held at the center for five months, some of the other mothers have been there for 10 months.
Galeano said that the mothers participating in the strike have not been influenced by any outside sources, and that they will not eat, work, or send their children to the center’s school until the detainees are released.
Colorlines noted that the Karnes facility, which is run the private GEO group, has a mostly-male staff of guards who have access to the women and children’s rooms at all times, and as a result, the Karnes facility has been the site of repeated allegations of sexual abuse.
According to Colorlines, while illegal immigrants are not authorized to work in the United States, undocumented detainees at Karnes help run the facility, and receive a paycheck of $3 a day. Their work includes cleaning and running the laundry facility for the 532-bed detention center.
Karnes City, Texas, has a population of about 3,500, and is home to several major fracking operations. These operations have led to complaints about contaminated water, which means that the city’s residents rely on bottled water. For residents at the Karnes facility, $3 is both a day’s salary and the price of a bottle of water, according to Colorlines.
Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), released a statement saying that the agency is carefully monitoring the situation for potential health and safety risks.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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,” Pruneda said.
McClatchy DC reported that the Karnes center is one of three immigration detention facilities set up specifically for women and children in the US. More than 2,500 illegal immigrants have been detained at these centers since July.