Seventy-eight women being held at a federal immigration detention facility in Texas are demanding their release, and around 40 have launched a Holy Week hunger and work strike. The women are mostly Central American and are seeking asylum in the United States. They are being held in detention with their children. At least two women on hunger strike have reportedly been placed in isolation, along with their children.
Colorlines reports that they received a Spanish-language petition from the 78 women, who are being held in detention at the Karnes County Residential Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility that’s operated by a private company, the GEO Group. The women, according to Colorlines, “have all been interviewed by immigration officials and have established a credible fear of persecution or torture if they were to be deported.” But some have not been given the opportunity to pay a bond yet to get out of Karnes; others say their bonds are far too high for them to pay. (Karnes used to hold asylum seekers without bond, until a federal judge put a stop to that practice in February.) The women are demanding their release, saying they won’t work, send their children to school or use any services at the facility until they’re given the opportunity to go before a judge and have their asylum pleas heard.
“We deserve to be treated with some dignity,” the letter reads, in part. “And that our rights, to the immigration process, are respected.”
Karnes was opened in 2012 and touted as a “model” detention facility, one meant to look somewhat less prison-like. “Courtrooms” of sorts were also created; detainees have their asylum pleas heard by judges in San Antonio and Houston via teleconference. (The best account of the slow, grinding process of getting out of Karnes comes from paralegal Victoria Rossi, who works with clients there and wrote about it in the Texas Observer earlier this year.) But in September 2014, MALDEF, a civil rights organization, filed a complaint with ICE and the Department of Homeland Security alleging that women at the facility were being sexually abused and harassed by guards there; an investigation by DHS found “no evidence” to prove the allegations, although it did uncover video surveillance of two guards having sex in a laundry room.
Some of the women being detained at Karnes have been there nearly a year; they said in their petition that their children’s health is deteriorating. The San Antonio Express-News spoke with civil rights organization RAICES, which said that 80 women began the strike Tuesday, “but that number fell after three women were held in isolation with their children in the detention center’s clinic. Two families have since been released.”
The GEO group, which detains around 80,000 people worldwide, has denied there’s any problem at the facility, releasing a statement which reads, in part:
The Karnes County Residential Center provides high quality care in a safe, clean, and family friendly environment, and onsite U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE’s Family Residential Standards. Our company has consistently, strongly denied allegations to the contrary.
The entrance to the Karnes facility. Photo via AP