Hundreds of Women in Immigrant Prison on Hunger Strike for Immediate Release

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by Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Hundreds of Women in Immigrant Prison on Hunger Strike for Immediate Release

"I'm dying of desperation from this injustice, from this cruelty," wrote Insis Maribel Zelaya Bernardez.

Just one week in, an indefinite hunger strike at an all-women's immigrant detention center in Texas—operated by the for-profit prison company Corrections Corporation of America—has swelled to hundreds of refugees and migrants who are uniting behind a single demand: immediate freedom.

While the exact number of participants is unknown, a person who regularly visits the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor where the protest is taking place told Common Dreams that a "very substantial proportion" of the 500 women detained there on hunger strike. The source requested anonymity to ensure continued access to the detention center, which is ultimately under the control of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The vast majority of those on hunger strike are asylum seekers fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, with many also from Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico, and Europe. Some are seeking to live in the United States to reunite with their children and other family members.

"There are grave injustices being committed—detentions spanning eight months, 10 months, a year, a year and a half," declared Magdrola, one of the 27 women who launched the peaceful protest last week, in a hand-written letter. "In the end, we are being told we have no rights and will be deported, with offensive words and gestures that make us feel worthless."

"It gives me great pleasure to participate in this hunger strike," wrote Insis Maribel Zelaya Bernardez in a separate letter posted to the website of advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership, which is supporting the protest. "I can't take any more of this punishment. I'm dying of desperation from this injustice, from this cruelty."

There are already reports of retaliation, with Bernardez placed in solitary confinement from Saturday until Monday. Two other women—Francisca Morales Macías and Amalia Arteaga Leal—have been moved to an unknown detention center, and their supporters are asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement to disclose their locations.

Monica Morales, the 27-year-old daughter of Macías, told Common Dreams that, since her mother was moved yesterday to an undisclosed all-men's detention center, she has only been permitted a brief phone call.

"They are keeping her isolated. They are doing it to make her back down," Morales said of her mother, who hails from Mexico and seeks to be with her U.S. citizen husband and two Dreamer daughters.

"All she is asking for is freedom, nothing else," continued Morales, who lives in Amarillo, Texas. "She is not wanting to take anything. She just wants to be free to be with her family.  We have been away from each other for five years. It is time for us to be together."

In a report released in late October, the United Nations Refugee Agency warned that "Women in Central America and Mexico are fleeing their countries in rising numbers to escape a surge in deadly, unchecked gang violence, fueling a looming refugee crisis in the Americas"

An investigation published in October by the Guardian reveals that President Barack Obama's harsh immigration policies—which include record-high deportations—have deadly consequences for refugees and asylum seekers who are forcibly deported back to violent conditions in their countries of origin in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

And a separate report released by a federal government-appointed commission in September found that, on U.S. soil, people displaced by violence and poverty in predominantly Latin American countries are being forced into "detention centers" that are plagued with human rights abuses, including: denial of food and medical care, lack of due process, and allegations of sexual assault.

The Hutto protest follows numerous other hunger strikes at immigrant detention centers across the country, including one launched earlier this year led by mothers incarcerated with their children at Karnes Detention Camp in Texas.

Over the past two weeks alone, protests led by dozens of South Asian people detained on immigration charges have swept the El Paso Processing Center in Texas and the Lasalle Detention Center in Louisiana. According to the unnamed source who regularly visits Hutto, roughly 20 people are also currently on hunger strike at the Adelanto Detention Center in California.

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