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Immigrants in Texas detention center mount hunger strike, advocates say

August 3, 2018

Immigrant fathers formerly separated from their sons are on a hunger strike at a Texas detention center, advocates said, apparently to seek release from government custody and authorization to remain in the U.S.

The hunger and activity strike at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility near San Antonio started Wednesday, and more families joined Thursday, according to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a local advocacy group which has been in contact with dozens of detainees there in recent days.

About 300 men and 300 boys are participating, with adults not eating or drinking and children declining to participate in school activities, said Jennifer Falcon, communications director for the advocacy group.

ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa didn’t respond to requests to verify or dispute the account of the protest. She said in an emailed statement that the agency’s policy is to monitor food and water intake for detainees identified as hunger strikers and not to “retaliate in any way against” them.

“We are desperate, we are tired of being incarcerated and we want to be released with our sons,” one father identified merely as Jorge wrote in a letter dated July 31. He said he wrote “to let the media know the unfairness we separated fathers are going through.”

The families are among more than 2,500 that were separated earlier this year after illegally crossing the U.S. border with Mexico under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement policy. Under pressure, President Donald Trump ended the family separation program with a mid-June executive order.

The men on the hunger strike are asking to be released with their children and allowed to stay in the U.S. The families “do not deserve to be deported” after their “suffering,” Jorge wrote in the letter.

The hunger strikers are being held at Karnes County Residential Center, one of ICE’s three family detention facilities. It’s run by the GEO Group, an operator of private corrections and detention facilities in the U.S. and other countries.

Advocates for the detainees said they don’t know why families are being held at Karnes while others have been released. “There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why these people were detained and others were released,” said Manoj Govindaiah, the group’s director of family detention services.

At least some of the detainees signed English-language documents agreeing to be deported. They’ve since told attorneys that they thought the documents were to gain the return of their children, Falcon said.

These and other reunified families haven’t been deported because of a July 16 order from U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw pausing the deportations of recently reunified families, amid concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union that parents signed deportation agreements they didn’t understand.

A nearby ICE facility that the advocacy group estimated is holding about 100 reunified women and their children, the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, is also facing increased scrutiny. An immigration lawyers group said Wednesday that a young child allegedly died shortly after release from the center.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the group had confirmed that a toddler died soon after being released from government custody in the Dilley center, but had no other information about the child.

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