UPDATE, November 6, 1:20 p.m.: Grassroots Leadership’s Cristina Parker told Rewire Immigration Reporting Fellow Tina Vasquez in a follow-up interview that the “exact number of detainees participating in the Hutto hunger strike is still unknown.” Parker added that, “Hutto is divided into sections, making it difficult for detainees to communicate with women in other sections of the detention center. It is more likely the detainee was reporting that everyone in her section at Hutto was participating in the hunger strike.”
The number of hunger strikers at a Texas immigrant detention facility has swelled to almost 500 since last Wednesday, an Austin-based advocacy group revealed in a phone call with Rewire.
When news of the protest action broke on October 28, about 27 women at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, 35 miles east of Austin, were reportedly refusing their meals.
While grievances ranged from abusive treatment by guards to a lack of medical care, the women, hailing primarily from Central America, were unanimous in their one demand: immediate release.
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The strike snowballed over the weekend, according to Grassroots Leadership, an organization that forms part of a larger umbrella group known as Texans United for Families (TUFF).
Cristina Parker, immigration programs director for Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire that one striker who contacted the organization Sunday night to brief them on the situation used the Spanish expression “casi todo,” suggesting that nearly all of the roughly 500 detainees are now observing the strike.
She said that officials at Hutto, a women’s-only for-profit facility run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) under an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have since Wednesday been retaliating against the strikers, and this weekend isolated one woman who has played a leading role in the action by placing her in solitary confinement.
In a phone call with Rewire, a press officer for the facility said, “There is no hunger strike going on … There was never anybody not eating, that is false information.” A statement from ICE reiterated: “ICE takes the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care very seriously and we continue to monitor the situation. Currently, no one at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center was identified as being on a hunger strike or refusing to eat.”
These letters reveal that a vast majority of the women are asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala fleeing situations of severe violence in their home countries. Other detainees hail from Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico, and even Europe.
One woman wrote, “It gives me great pleasure to participate in this hunger strike … I’m dying of desperation from this injustice, from this cruelty.”
Parker said part of the impetus for the action came from those calling themselves “mujeres de segunda” or “women of second entry,” who are entering the United States as asylum seekers for a second time and who claim they have been unfairly denied bond.
Other detainees are first-time or recent arrivals, while some have been detained for nearly two years. A primary concern among many has been the fate of their children—specifically young daughters—both in the United States and back in their home countries.
In a letter dated October 24, Elda, a Guatemalan detainee, wrote: “I have two young daughters. They are depressed and very sad that I am not with them.” She is extremely afraid of what deportation would mean for her and her family, while several others fear that deportation would mean their “assured death” upon return.
Parker added that since nearly all the women in the center are hunger-striking, any deportation should be seen as retaliation, and an attempt to “disappear evidence.”
“We want to see deportations halted until the women’s demands are met,” she said.
While day-to-day management of Hutto has typically been in the hands of CCA employees, ICE officials have been on the scene since Wednesday, questioning women and demanding that they resume their meals, Parker said.
On the same day the women launched their hunger strike, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a major report warning of a “looming refugee crisis” in the Americas, fueled largely by thousands of women fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA): Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
UNHCR officials attributed the exodus to a proliferation of organized criminal armed groups, many with transnational reach, which has resulted in an increase in gender-based violence and homicide.
According to data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, female homicide rates in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, on a global index.
The 160 women interviewed for the report, which included detainees at Hutto, described personally surviving rape, extortion, and death threats, or witnessing or being threatened with the disappearance of their children and other family members. Many said local authorities were either unable or unwilling to ensure their safety.
In 2014, three times as many women from NTCA entered the United States as in 2013, nearly all of whom would likely qualify for asylum if it weren’t for numerous hurdles aimed at stemming the flow of people allowed in. Citing U.S. government data, the UN report revealed that of the 16,077 women from these three countries interviewed by U.S. officials in the last year, 82 percent were “found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture,” giving them sound basis for seeking asylum.
Parker said her community has been visiting the women at Hutto for years, and believes that nearly all of them are fleeing gang violence or domestic violence.
“The women who are at Hutto are people who are coming to this country for help and the fact that we’ve put them in a prison is something that’s deeply disturbing,” she said.
UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include a statement from an ICE representative.