ASYLUM SEEKERS ON HUNGER STRIKE IN TEXAS
by Peter Gorman, World War 4 Report
More than 100 women detained at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, went on a hunger strike in late October that lasted nearly two weeks, protesting the length of time they are being held before their amnesty cases are heard. It has since become a rolling hunger strike, with units of 40-50 women participating two or three days at a time and then another unit taking over. It is unknown how many of the center's units are participating in the rolling hunger strike.
The Hutto Detention center has been problematic for years, both when it was a regular jail, and more recently as an alien detention center. Hutto is run by private prison profiteers Corrections Corporation of America. It was a medium level men's prison until 2006, when it was revamped and utilized as a family detention center, housing women and their children who had applied for political asylum. The revamping meant paintings on the walls, and little children in prison uniforms, and cell doors locked for 12 hours at night while the incarcerated mothers and children waited for their cases to be heard.
A lawsuit pertaining to the Detention Center's conditions led to it being closed down in 2009, but it quickly reopened as a Women's Detention Center. It currently houses 500 immigrant women, the vast majority of whom have already passed the "credible-fear" interview with federal Asylum Officers; an interview during which the officers determine whether a woman faces sufficient fear of persecution that returning her to her home country would put her in physical danger. Most women who pass that interview are freed without supervision until a court date to hear her amnesty case comes up. But some wind up in T. Don Hutto.
"Some of the women are sent there because they were given a bond they could not pay," said a woman monitoring the current situation at Hutto who asked not to be named because her ability to continue visiting the women there will be revoked if she speaks to the press. "Other women were not offered bond. In either case these are women who are being kept in prison circumstances when they are non-criminal amnesty seekers."
Waiting time for an amnesty case to be heard is—according to federal immigration officials—generally a matter of a month or so. But in the case of many of the women detained at Hutto, that waiting time has been anywhere from six months to more than a year. And the women are fed up.
The hunger strikers involved 27 women, but it has spread quickly. "We don't know the exact numbers, but it's grown substantially," said a source who has visited the detention center regularly during the strike. "It might well be in the hundreds now."
The strike didn't come about because of a specific incident, just general frustration. "These are not criminals and yet they are being held for several months. Many don't have attorneys to help them with their legal cases and that keeps them in longer," the source said.
In response to the hunger strike, CCA placed one of the perceived strike leaders in solitary for 36 hours, moved seven to other facilities, threatened women with deportation, and eliminated evening recreation hours.
"These are women who are fleeing drug and gang violence—and sometimes government violence—in primarily Central American countries," the source said. "They come here seeking protection and wind up in a detention center, and then sometimes deported. There is something very wrong with that picture."
In a letter from one of the striking women that was given to Texans United for Families, a volunteer organization monitoring the Hutto situation, the asylum seeker wrote: "I emigrated with the hope to obtain help here, but instead I have been treated unjustly and have been...detained for six months, and in the end I have only been a victim of unfulfillment [sic] of the people in immigration and the judges, giving us hope with our credible fear finding just to have our cases finally be denied and condemned to a certain death."
The initial strike was ended because some of the women were getting quite weak from not eating. The rolling strike, which started almost immediately after the initial strike ended, will continue until the women are granted the asylum they seek.
An earlier version of this article first ran Nov. 4 in Fort Worth Weekly.
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Reprinting permissible with attribution