On hunger strike in the heart of Texas

November 23, 2015

Cindy Beringer reports from Texas on the courageous protest action by immigrant women incarcerated in the notorious T. Don Hutto detention center.

ON A drab and windy afternoon on November 7, about 70 protesters from Austin, Texas, and surrounding areas sloshed through muddy fields to protest the treatment of immigrant women on a hunger strike at the for-profit T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

The approximately 30 women refusing food and water were facing retaliation for their actions, and in spite of damning evidence to the contrary, both federal immigration and Hutto officials are denying that the hunger strike is taking place.

It was a moment of déjà vu for me and a few other activists. Hutto is a former prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America that was reopened as an immigrant detention center for families in 2006. Word soon got out about the horrible conditions inside: children were mistreated and threatened by guards, women were often victimized by sexual misconduct and all--regardless of age--were treated like criminals.

Years of protests outside the hideous building against this treatment and the larger policy of imprisoning immigrant families led to constant news exposure and a lawsuit. Finally, in 2009, the Obama administration announced that Hutto would no longer house families with children, but would be reopened as a detention center for immigrant women.

Protesters stand in solidarity with prisoners outside T. Don Hutto detention center
Protesters stand in solidarity with prisoners outside T. Don Hutto detention center

IN EARLY October, 54 South Asian women began refusing food and water in an ICE prison in El Paso, Texas. Five days later, 14 Indian and Bangladeshi women began a hunger strike in a prison in La Salle, Louisiana. In both facilities, women are detained with the children they brought with them during their migration.

As news of these actions spread across facilities, Francisca Morales Macis went on a hunger strike inside Hutto. Among her complaints were being served rotten milk and undercooked and even uncooked food.

Within days, the number of Hutto strikers grew to 27, and continues to grow. The women wrote individual letters detailing their complaints, including cruel treatment by the guards, inadequate medical care, little or no security, and "offensive words and gestures that make us feel worthless," as they put it themselves.

All describe having to wait under these horrendous conditions while their cases drag on for months, and even years. The average wait time for someone with a case pending in Houston's immigration court is reported to be 703 days.

What you can do

To read the letters of the hunger strikers, get more information about their struggle and demand the release of the #Hutto27, go to grassrootsleadership.org.

The majority of the women in these Texas horror chambers are escaping violence and persecution in their home countries of Mexico and Central America. As one of the hunger strikers wrote:

I am a woman fleeing a country where we are given few rights, all of which are violated, and land in this place, where the people of immigration condemn us to a process with little or no security, since this process will ultimately end with our deportation. With no objection to a lack of defense, condemning us to an assured death upon being deported back to our countries, then where are our rights?

IMMIGRATION AND Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have tried to deny that a hunger strike is even taking place. "There is no hunger strike, there has never been a hunger strike," ICE spokesperson Nina Pruneda told the Texas Observer. "It's been very misleading. Everything has been based on rumor and not fact."

The letters of the women and personal accounts from a very limited number of visitors allowed access to the women give the lie to that statement.

As could be expected from a for-profit prison--or detention center or whatever happens to be the euphemistic name of the day--that is worried about negative publicity affecting future government contracts, Hutto officials have been vicious in their retaliation.

Monica Morales, daughter of Francisca Morales Macias, who started the hunter strike, says that her mother and another woman have been sent to an all-male facility--she doesn't know which one--and put in solitary confinement. The mother and daughter haven't seen each other in six years.

Another women, who was transferred from Hutto, said that before she was moved, a guard told her, "God does not decide your fate here, ICE does."

Despite this retaliation, the determination of the strikers doesn't seem to be weakening. "It gives me great pleasure to participate in this hunger strike," writes Insis, a Garífuna woman from Honduras. "I can't take any more of this punishment. I'm dying of desperation, from this injustice, from this cruelty. They treat us like dogs...When I feel bad, they say I'm lying."

Recent reports indicate that the strike appears to be growing. Cristina Parker, immigration programs coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, told the Texas Observer that "women have vowed to strike indefinitely."

Parker also told Color Lines that the detainees were switching to a rolling strike to preserve the women's strength. A section holding between 40 and 50 women would strike for several days, until the next section would take up the strike.

THE HUNGER strike coincided with an already planned three-day pilgrimage beginning on November 19 outside Hutto Detention Center and ending on November 21 outside the governor's mansion. The protests are marking the one-year anniversary of Obama's executive action on immigration, and protesting Gov. Greg Abbott for leading the lawsuit against that action when he was state attorney general.

Documented and undocumented workers from across the state will ask Abbott to "meet with the families he hurt throughout his opposition to comprehensive immigration reform."

In the days since the announcement of the pilgrimage and rally, Abbott has threatened a crackdown on sanctuary cities, and announced, along with other Republican governors, that he wouldn't allow a Syrian refugee inside the sacred borders of Texas.

The little governor of a big state plagued by recurrent "100-year" floods and epic droughts spends his time worrying about keeping out immigrants seeking asylum while the citizens of his state struggle with inadequate to no public assistance as they battle to survive the recent ravages of climate change.

While Republicans like Abbott and Donald Trump directly appeal to racial paranoia, Barack Obama continues to pursue racist immigration policies of boosting the powers of ICE and private detention facilities, which have caused untold suffering, even as Obama smoothly talks about his desire for immigrants to find a "path to citizenship."

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"--the words of Emma Lazarus are famously inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, but they have never guided this country's policy. The image of "the wretched refuge of your teeming shore" is more real today than it's been in decades, but "the homeless, tempest-tossed" are not welcome on these shores, nor any that I know of.

There is, of course, an alternative, and as the planet continues to burn at an alarming rate, there has never been a better time to take it. It's time to take all those shores teeming from capitalist exploitation and imperialist wars and make a planet where we can all live.

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