Hunger Strikes At ICE Detention Centers Spread As Parole, Bond Are Denied
By NPR News April 19, 2019
PHOTO: Some detainees at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, went on a hunger strike last year. There have been at least six hunger strikes at detention centers in the first three months of 2019 alone. CREDIT: Eric Gay/ AP
BY MICHAEL ISSAC STEIN
In the last week of March, dozens of asylum-seekers held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., initiated a hunger strike. Activists said 150 people joined the demonstration, while ICE put the number at 24.
It was a short-lived demonstration, ending on March 30, according to ICE. But it was at least the sixth hunger strike at a detention center in the first three months of 2019 alone.
“We have never seen so many hunger strikes in so many different places in less than three, four months,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigrants rights activist based in Washington state. “And the ones we have been able to engage with have been led by asylum-seekers.”
For several of the hunger strikes, the detainees’ central demand was to be released while their cases were adjudicated, a process that can take years. That was the first demand of the River Correctional strike, as well as the 77-day hunger strike that occurred at the El Paso Processing Center. That demonstration made national headlines when ICE agents began force-feeding detainees. A judge eventually ordered the agents to stop.
Asylum-seekers have two ways to escape detention while their cases are still being reviewed: bond or parole. The use of bonds in immigration court increased in the final years of the Obama administration, a trend that has been reversed under President Trump. And parole — a type of release granted to asylum-seekers who are found to have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries — has nearly disappeared altogether, immigration advocates and attorneys say.
“The way the system is operating right now, especially in Louisiana, is a farce,” said the wife of one of the hunger strikers at River Correctional. For fear of retribution from ICE agents, she asked to be identified only as “Dee,” an abbreviation of her first name. She also asked that her husband’s name not be included for fear it would interfere with his asylum case.
The pair are from Cuba and fled last year after they say they were imprisoned and tortured for their political beliefs.
“To feel that there is no hope, I think that’s been the hardest thing for him,” Dee said of her husband. “He’s been through worse, but the mental, psychological feeling that you are going to come to a refuge and instead find a prison, that’s what is really the hardest thing.”
Trump has taken a firm stance on immigration, including those seeking asylum, vowing to keep asylum-seekers in detention or force them to stay outside the United States while their claims are being considered.
“We’re going to catch, we’re not going to release,” he said at a news conference in November. “They’re going to stay with us until the deportation hearing or the asylum hearing takes place. … And they await a lengthy court process. The court process will take years sometimes for them to attend. Well, we’re not releasing them into our country any longer. They’ll wait.”
Trump has provided two primary reasons for the new approach. First, he says that asylum seekers who are released don’t return for their court hearings, stating that as few as 3% will appear in court. But according to a 2017 Department of Justice report, 89% of asylum-seekers appeared at a hearing at which a decision on their case was made.
The other major justification provided by the Trump administration is that the asylum system is a loopholefor immigrants who are not in danger, but rather looking for an easier path into the country.
“You do not subject yourself to a year of detention, even just six months of detention, let alone five years of detention, if you don’t have a credible claim,” said Jeremy Jong, a Louisiana-based immigration attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Dee pointed to the conditions that she and her husband have faced. She said they didn’t have adequate food or clothing, and that her husband was put in solitary confinement after the hunger strike as retribution for his political activity.
“In general, ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in an email. “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”
Dee said that what made things worse is that a private company was making money from her husband’s suffering.
“This immigrations system has become so lucrative,” she said. “This whole system is for profit.”
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