Asylum-seeking mothers detained at a privately operated detention center in Karnes, Texas, alleged they were threatened with deportation and separation from their children after initiating a four-day hunger strike last week. The mothers have since vowed to renew the strike April 14.
The mothers broke their fast Saturday, April 4, to give officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) an opportunity to respond to their demands -- and it seems that, in at least one instance, perhaps they have.
ICE officials apparently released one family detained at the detention center after members were allegedly isolated in the facility's medical clinic last week, according a group advocating on behalf of the family.
Kenia Galeano was one of the 45 asylum-seeking mothers who participated in last week's hunger and work strike to protest deteriorating conditions at the Karnes detention center, according to lawyers and detainee advocates.
Advocates with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which organizes pro bono representation for asylum-seeking mothers at the Karnes detention center, said Galeano was granted a bond of $7,500 on Wednesday, which, Truthout confirmed, a staffer with RAICES paid in full Thursday.
"Kenia's release underscores the fact that jailing children with their mothers for five months only benefits private, for-profit prisons. These refugees, who fled their countries because of extreme violence, did not want to come here," said Jonathan Ryan, who is the executive director of RAICES. "They simply had no other choice. As a nation, we should immediately end this uncivilized practice of jailing children."
An ICE spokeswoman told Truthout that the release of Galeano and her 2-year-old son "is not something [ICE] can confirm for the safety and security of the individual," in an emailed statement.
At least 78 women initiated a hunger strike during Holy Week last Tuesday, but that number dropped to about 45 after ICE officials allegedly threatened some of the hunger-striking mothers, and the detention center's guards reportedly isolated three of the women, including Galeano, who were seen as "ringleaders," in a medical clinic that was kept dark and frigid.
An open letter, handwritten in Spanish, declared the 78 mothers' motivations for hunger striking last week.
"We came to this country with our children looking for help and refuge, and we're being treated like criminals, and that's not what we are, we're not a threat to this country," wrote the women, many of whom have been incarcerated between six to 10 months now. "Our children do not eat well. Every day they lose weight, and their health deteriorates. We know any mother would do the same as we do now for our children. We deserve to be treated with dignity and to be respected."
In the letter, the hunger strikers wrote that women and children were still being incarcerated at the Karnes detention center, despite having passed what's known as a "credible fear" interview, which is a critical, legal step in determining whether their asylum claim is valid. The letter also stated that some of the mothers had been forced to sign voluntary deportation forms.
Last week's hunger strike has prompted a federal probe into the undocumented women's allegations of retaliation by ICE and Karnes officials. Investigators from the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties reportedly met by phone Thursday with two of the detained women, who said they and their children were put into isolation inside the detention center's medical unit last week because they were seen as leaders of the protest. The medical clinic contains only a bed, a toilet and a sink, advocates told Truthout.
Advocates, Attorneys Allege Retaliation, Isolation in "El Cuarto Oscuro"
Detention center guards allegedly retaliated against three of the Central American women, Monday, March 30, even before the hunger strike officially began the following Tuesday. The women and children who reported being isolated in the medical unit included Galeano and her 2-year-old son; Delmy Cruz and her 11-year-old son; and Polyane Oliveira and her 10-year-old daughter.
"They were all placed in, essentially, the 'dark room,' and what that encompasses, one of the mothers explained to us, is that the lights were only turned on in the room whenever they were being fed," said Mohammad Abdollahi, who is advocacy director with RAICES. "They had no contact with the outside."
Abdollahi said ICE officials told the mothers that because they weren't taking solid food, they would become mentally unfit to care for their children, and so ICE would be justified in separating their children from them.
In addition to threats of separation and deportation, advocates said ICE officials also shut down the commissary so that the mothers would be forced to drink the facility's tap water, which advocates suspect has been chlorinated due to heavy industrial hydraulic fracturing operations in Karnes County.
The mothers, who are paid $3 a day to work at the detention center, typically opt to buy clean water for $2.50 at the commissary, as well as other pre-packaged snacks and microwavable food items for their children. Advocates and attorneys have described the standard food provided at the prison as inappropriate for the children, who have been raised eating an entirely different cuisine.
Advocates have been reporting that children detained at Karnes have been losing weight and displaying other signs of malnourishment and depression, including some children whose hair has begun to fall out "in chunks."
Well before last week's hunger strike, human rights groups who have visited the Karnes detention center described the conditions there as "deplorable," saying detainees did not have adequate access to legal counsel and that those who had valid asylum claims were not being provided with sufficient information about the process for pursuing them. They said many interviews with asylum officers had been rushed.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Washington, DC, 58 percent of the children and families fleeing violence in Central American countries have "legitimate" claims to asylum and international protections under international law.
ICE denies the hunger strike ever occurred at the Karnes detention center last week and maintains that family detention centers do not have solitary confinement areas. But attorneys and advocates told Truthout that confinement in the medical clinic has been used commonly as a punishment tool by Karnes officials.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 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," ICE officials wrote in a statement released to Truthout.
Advocates told Truthout that ICE officials have denied the women were on a hunger strike because they witnessed -- and filmed -- the women buying snacks for their children from the commissary.
A 2011 ICE procedural handbook states that detainees who don't eat for at least 72 hours are to be placed in the medical department "for evaluation and possible treatment by medical and mental health personnel." The handbook says staff may also place a detainee in the medical department even before 72 hours. The handbook also states that hunger-striking detainees can be placed in a "single occupancy observation room."
"It's not really about medical purposes, because the women inside have been complaining about weight loss for six, seven months," Abdollahi told Truthout. "Weight loss as a result of the hunger strike isn't anything different than what the women are already facing inside."
Fleeing Violence in Brazil Only to Face More Violence in the US
Many of the asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America currently detained in family detention centers such as the one at Karnes have fled extreme violence in their home countries, including rape and death threats. This has been the case for at least one of the women who was allegedly put into isolation in the Karnes medical clinic last week, according to the woman's husband.
Polyane Soares de Oliveira dos Santos originally lived in Brazil but emigrated to Boston, where she lived with her husband long before she was detained at Karnes. Oliveira's husband, who requested his name be withheld, told Truthout that she returned to Brazil to reunite with her 10-year-old daughter and care for her ailing mother.
Oliveira wasn't planning to return to the United States because she had anticipated the difficulties of obtaining the proper immigration documents. Her husband told Truthout that after her mother got well, she began working as a housekeeper on a farm in Brazil. However, after a few weeks of work, her employer began to rape and abuse her.
After she threatened to go to the Brazilian authorities and report the rape, the farmer threatened to kill her. At that point, Oliveira decided to flee the country with her daughter. She turned herself over to authorities when she arrived at the Southwest US border and was sent to Karnes shortly after, where she and her daughter passed a "credible fear" interview, according to advocates. She has been detained at Karnes for eight months now.
"She tells me over the phone ... '[The farmer] raped me while I was working for him on his farm. ... Once I'll be deported to Brazil, he might kill me,'" her husband says.
He said she and her 10-year-old daughter have been re-traumatized since coming to the US to seek asylum through their detention at Karnes. He worries about his stepdaughter's mental health, and said that when the little girl was interviewed by ICE officials last November, they treated her as an adult, asking her if she had ever killed anyone or if she was a member of a gang.
"[The girl] got so frustrated. She started to really cry a lot, and she was by herself, and then they asked the mother to come in and comfort her, and after she stopped crying, they came again with the same questions," he said.
After the family obtained "credible fear" status, an immigration judge assigned Oliveira's young daughter a $2,000 bond, but the family never attempted to post the bond because they already knew ICE officials would refuse to release Oliveira and her daughter.
Many of the women participating in last week's hunger strike are not eligible for bond from an immigration judge because they are classified in a "withholding only" status, which means they have previously been deported out of the US.
Attorneys told Truthout that even though many of the mothers aren't eligible for bond due to their withholding status, their children are. In some cases, immigration judges have granted the children bond under the condition that ICE would release the children into the custody of their mothers, but ICE officials have refused to release the mothers, and refuse to release the children to any other designated family member. This is just the legal conundrum Oliveira and her young daughter face at Karnes.
Because ICE policy has been a no-bond policy, a bond re-determination hearing has been routine for detained asylum-seekers. Attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch previously told Truthout that ICE seems to set bonds based on bed space. When more beds are available, she said, the bonds are set higher, between about $7,000 and $10,000. RAICES has said bond has been set as high as $15,000. When there's less bed space, the bonds are between $3,000 and $5,000, Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Oliveira's husband told Truthout that the couple's children, who remain in his custody, have been quiet and have been having trouble in school since Oliveira and her daughter were detained at Karnes. "They need their mother," he told Truthout.
He supports his wife's hunger strike because he believes it's one of the only ways the women have to make their voices heard.
Oliveira told him on Sunday that ICE officials were going to meet this week with those who participated in the hunger strike to determine what their punishment would be, giving them a choice of either a week without food from the commissary or a week without phone calls.
A Pattern of Cracking Down on Mothers and Their Attorneys
Oliveira's attorney, Virginia Raymond, has said Oliveira's alleged isolation last week is part of a larger pattern of ICE officials cracking down on the detained mothers, as well as their advocates and attorneys. Raymond said ICE officials have banned at least two paralegals from visiting the detention center, including her own paralegal, Victoria Rossi.
Raymond says the other paralegal, RAICES' Johana De Leon, is being accused of organizing last week's hunger strike. She believes her own paralegal was banned from the detention center for publishing an article in The Texas Observer describing the conditions inside. ICE told Raymond, however, that Rossi was banned because ICE had only authorized her to visit the detention center as an interpreter, rather than a paralegal.
Advocacy organizations as well as dozens of pro bono attorneys representing asylum-seeking families held at Karnes have signed an open letter to ICE officials, calling for an end to their interference in legal processes and to the alleged retaliatory measures taken against the women and their attorneys.
Raymond also told Truthout that authorities have stepped up security measures at the Karnes detention center, including installing a second set of metal detectors last week. "It's just more intimidation, more security, more distrust," Raymond said.
Raymond alleged ICE officials have interfered in attorneys' immigration cases, asking probing questions about how many people are representing a Karnes client and curtailing entry for legal staff.
"At the same time [ICE officials] were accusing Johana De Leon of RAICES of organizing a fast, they were denying that a fast was taking place," Raymond said.
Additionally, Raymond pointed out that ICE officials have investigated a San Antonio resident, Yasmina Codina, a volunteer with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, who visited the facility last Tuesday to deliver clean drinking water to the hunger-striking mothers inside.
In a letter to Joaquin Castro, a Texas House representative from her district, Codina writes that shortly after she left the Karnes detention center Tuesday, she was notified by her supervisor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she is a graduate assistant, that ICE officials had called asking questions about her activities outside of work and school.
"[Karnes] is a really ugly place right now," Raymond told Truthout.
"Deplorable" Conditions at Family Detention Centers Amid Plans for Expansion
The Karnes County Civil Detention Center, about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, was originally opened in 2012 to detain adult men, but was converted last summer into a private immigrant detention center holding children and families fleeing poverty and violence in Central American countries. The detention center currently incarcerates about 300 families and is owned and operated by the private prison corporation GEO Group.
The company has come under fire in the past for its conditions and practices, which have sparked lawsuits as well as previous hunger strikes at its detention centers and have resulted in the company having at least one of its contracts canceled at the Coke County juvenile detention facility.
The Karnes detention center is part of an expansion of family detention centers in Texas, facilitated by the Obama administration as a response to the Central American refugee influx that reached its peak last summer, when more than 68,541 unaccompanied, undocumented minors crossed the Southwest border. Another 68,445 undocumented women traveling with children were counted, but those numbers have slowed considerably since then.
A federal court in Washington granted a preliminary injunction in February to temporarily halt the Obama administration's policy of detaining asylum-seeking mothers and children as a deterrent to other potential migrants.
But despite the recent ruling, the practice of family detention has kept pace, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the nation's two largest private prison companies, are predicting an increase in contracts with ICE at the state and federal level in 2015 to lock up asylum-seeking families.
CCA officials reported that its new family detention center in Dilley, Texas, has already generated more than $21 million in revenue in the last quarter of 2014. It's expected to officially become the nation's largest immigrant detention facility, as the population swells to fill its 2,400-bed capacity later this spring.
But similar signs of trouble are already beginning to surface at the Dilley facility. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights group, and RAICES has already reported an attempted suicide last month at Dilley Family Detention Center, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio.
Those who have already toured the new Dilley detention center have said that, like the Karnes detention center, detainees confined there have few due process protections and that their asylum cases have been rushed.
President Obama, responding to pressure from immigrant-rights activists, took executive action to offer temporary deportation relief to more than 4 million undocumented immigrants in late November and created a temporary work status, called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, for the undocumented parents of US-born children.
But the president's action has faced congressional and legal challenges, including clashes in the House over attempts to repeal the president's executive actions. More recently, a Texas federal judge has maintained a temporary injunction on the president's executive action this week, rejecting a Department of Justice request that he allow the order to move forward.
In the meantime, the women incarcerated at the Karnes family detention center feel they have no other choice but to pursue their hunger strike.
"[ICE officials] don't respect any law ... they are a kind of a God to play with young kids' and womens' lives. That's a life that they are playing with. If they get deported, their lives are in danger," Oliveira's husband told Truthout. "They don't care. They don't care about them."