Family members of detainees on hunger strike at the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas, say that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have retaliated against three detainees they believe to be "leaders" of the ongoing peaceful protest by isolating and shackling them and scheduling another for deportation.
Truthout reported on a hunger strike at a privately run GEO Group immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington, that inspired a similar strike at the Conroe facility, also owned by the GEO Group, last week. Since then, the hunger strike at the Tacoma detention center has resumed and instances of retaliation at both facilities are apparent.
The wife of one detainee at the Joe Corley Detention Facility says her husband, Rubén Rodriguez Bonilla, phoned her Tuesday morning with news of ICE plans to deport him to Honduras on Thursday.
"They're trying to disappear my husband," Sandra Bonilla said in a translated statement released by the grassroots Houston group Alianza Mexicana. "Instead of treating the detainees like human beings they want to treat them like animals. And if they ask for better, they try to get rid of them. My husband should be home with our family, not in detention. He doesn't want to be treated like a dog, and so they're punishing him even more. There's nothing humane about that."
According to family members, lawyers and immigrant justice groups working on their behalf, another three men have been isolated at the Texas facility, and shackled at the ankles, wrists and connected by the waist to steel beds with no blankets or pillows.
ICE officials did not publicly acknowledge a hunger strike at the Texas facility last week, despite two letters outlining a list of demands released by detainees who have since been isolated at the facility.
This week, Houston ICE spokesman Greg Palmore acknowledged that at least three detainees are participating in a hunger strike, saying the men "have been separated from the general population and placed under medical observation." Palmore told Truthout that no punitive actions have been taken against individuals who are participating in the protest.
He confirmed to Truthout that Rodriguez Bonilla was not scheduled for deportation Thursday and that his case is going through appeal. But Palmore said ICE does not provide "removal information for detainees for security reasons." Palmore did not confirm whether ICE officials would force-feed detainees.
But detainees and others who have visited the facility have told Truthout retaliatory measures are being taken at the Texas facility.
Rodriguez Bonilla told his wife that he has not been isolated but was put into a smaller cell with other detainees, some of whom are on hunger strike. He told her four detainees have been removed from his cell this week; he believes them to have been deported. He has also alleged that detention facility officials have attempted to coerce the detainees into signing voluntary departure forms to speed their deportation.
The current number of hunger-striking detainees is difficult to confirm this week because visitation with civilians has been limited since detainees launched the hunger strike last Monday. At one point, at least 120 men were on hunger strike at the Texas facility, but the detainees have been separated from each other, according to family members, and put into smaller group cells, making the number of hunger strikers difficult to confirm.
"Joe Corley detention center is shut down like Fort Knox," said Hope Sanford, who organizes with Alianza Mexicana. "It's … opaque. That's how [prison officials] are keeping it."
Sanford and family members told Truthout that prison guards purposely unshackle the detainees who have been isolated when any visitors approach. The three isolated detainees are allowed only one visit per week.
Tacoma Strikers Negotiate, Inspire Legislative Action
Meanwhile at least 70 detainees at the Northwest Detention Center have resumed hunger striking Monday, but exact numbers remain difficult to assess. Retaliatory measures also may have been used against detainees at the Tacoma facility, such as placing some detainees in solitary confinement and threatening to force-feed them, according to immigration rights activists working with and visiting the detainees in Tacoma.
Organizer Maru Mora Villalpando told Truthout that prison guards at the Tacoma detention center have been listening in on the detainees' conversations and that the detainees have responded to by finding more "creative" ways to communicate.
Congressman Adam Smith, a Democrat from Bellevue, among other representatives, visited the Northwest Dentention Center last week after news of the detainees' massive hunger strike made national headlines. Smith met with three detainees and agreed with the men that their concerns about the center's conditions were valid. Smith plans to introduce legislation that would create minimum standards by which immigrants can be detained.
"It is really problematic having a private company running this," Smith told The Stranger, emphasizing that the GEO Group contracts out the handling of meals for detainees to third parties. "So I can imagine that the less they pay for the food, the more money they make."
Immigrant rights activists acted on behalf of Tacoma hunger-striking detainees during negotiations with ICE officials in Seattle on Friday, presenting the detainees' list of demands. Organizers said ICE officials invited organizations that had nothing to do with negotiations, and that one group declined the invitation for this reason.
ICE officials told the group that the Tacoma facility is one of the top detention centers in the country. "If that's true, then it tells me the rest of the country is in terrible, terrible shape," Villalpando told Truthout in response.
When negotiating over the detainees' food concerns, ICE officials offered to provide the detainees chicken with bones. When Villalpando took that information back to hunger striking detainees, one detainee told her that ICE's response was "literally just throwing a bone at [detainees] to make them quiet."
ICE officials also told the group that the detainees' personal anecdotes about medical care at the facility were not enough evidence to agree to any of their demands concerning adequate care.
But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the negotiation process was the discussion concerning the center's profit margins, the length of time it takes for detainees to be released and the rate of bond at the center.
"One thing that we learned is that because we have a detention center here, really, it's a priority to fill up that place and not to offer alternatives to detention," Villapando said. "It really means that if we didn't have these private detention centers here, people would be more likely out with their families in their homes with alternatives to detention, going through civil proceedings."
ICE hasn't yet followed up with the group concerning the negotiations, but the group did provide a report about their meeting to Congressional representatives.
Pressure Mounts for Immigration Reform Vote, Halt to Deportations
The hunger strikes at the privatized detention facilities continue this week as immigrant justice organizers increase pressure on the Obama administration to put an immediate halt to deportation and to pass immigration reform legislation through a range of tactics, including nonviolent civil disobedience.
Protests have erupted this week at the GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida, as well as at ICE's headquarters in Portland, Oregon. And on Monday, seven activists with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice were arrested while blocking the entrance of the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, with two undocumented immigrants among them.
Another group, Presente.org, launched a new campaign Wednesday aimed at Obama's immigration legacy. Several regional and national immigrant-rights groups have worked together to unveil the "Obama Legacy Project." The groups hope the campaign will hold Obama accountable by providing a comprehensive account of his immigration record, saying he risks becoming "the worst president in history on immigration."
The projects looks at Obama's record on a long list of issues such as deportation, border militarization, mass incarceration of undocumented immigrants, racial profiling policies, hate crimes, the Secure Communities program, the experiences of immigrant women in detention centers and oversight of border patrol, among others.
"It is a tipping point for the president," said Jesús Iñiguez, a campaigner with Presente.org who is openly undocumented. "He can either be remembered as deporter-in-chief, the worst president in history on immigration, responsible for the record deportations that have ripped hundreds of thousands of families apart, or he can choose to act."
House Democrats tried once again Wednesday to force a vote on immigration reform legislation with a rarely used procedural maneuver called a discharge petition that would circumvent the Republican majority and skirt the regular committee process to bring the legislation to the floor. The move has been called a long shot and is designed mostly to put pressure on House Republicans to act on a reform package before the year's end, according to The New York Times.
"I applaud the efforts of Democrats in the House to give immigration reform the yes or no vote it deserves," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "Like the Senate bill, the House bill would strengthen our borders, modernize our legal immigration system, and keep more families together. It would make sure everyone plays by the same rules by providing a pathway to earned citizenship for those who are living in the shadows."
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reaffirmed Tuesday that the House immigration reform package, which is very similar to the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act that passed out of committee in the Senate, would reduce the federal deficit by about $900 billion over 20 years.
The move comes after Obama, citing concern about family separation, called for a review of his administration's immigration-enforcement policies this month, to look into whether enforcement could be accomplished "more humanely within the confines of the law."
Iñiguez, though, says that these statements - unaccompanied by action - are not enough.
"The debates happening in Congress seems to be more theatric between both political parties than they are constructive. Meanwhile, immigrants continue to suffer on a daily basis because President Obama has strayed from providing any kind of relief by using his executive authority," Iñiguez said.