The women detained at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas don’t know exactly where they are: they’re isolated, unsure of their legal fate–whether they’ll be allowed to remain in the US on humanitarian reprieve–and walled off from the outside world in a remote patch of Texas, which is known primarily as a place where migrants go to disappear. Amid all the unknowns about this place, the women do know two things: they belong with their children, and they do not belong there.
And after enduring months of incarceration, they know that they won’t get free without a fight. They’ve launched a hunger strike and a creative storytelling campaign to demand justice–exercising the last bit of autonomy they have as they languish in a legal no man’s land.
In an open letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more than 70 women, including many seeking asylum after fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries in Central America, are demanding that their cases be heard as humanitarian claims, and that they are released from detention while remaining together with their children. And as they press for release on bond, they are refusing to cooperate with their captors: the mothers will not participate in the Center’s labor regime, in which detainees run the laundry facility, nor will they send their kids to school, holding out the hope that their children will one day be allowed to sit in regular American classrooms.
Representing the many mothers and families who have passed through Karnes while seeking asylum, they stated:
There are mothers here who have been locked in this place for as long as 10 months. We also have mothers, that because they have had a previous deportation, are not granted a bond. They are granting a bond to their children, but they are not allowing an out to the mothers. This is the motive that we have taken the initiative of uniting ourselves and initiating a Hunger Strike, so that you can see and feel our desperation….You should know that this is only the beginning and we will not stop until we achieve our objectives. This strike will continue until every one of us is freed.
In recent days, images of women holding up messages of support for the Karnes mothers have circulated on social media–but they’re mostly going it alone, as they have severely limited access to legal representation, the media, and other advocates. Colorlines reported that a paralegal was recently barred from the facility after writing about what is unfolding inside. Meanwhile, there seems to be little accountability inside, with reports of harsh, unhealthy conditions, unfit for young children, as well as alleged sexual abuse of detainees trickling out in recent months.
The idea that people who came to this country in part to flee gender-based and sexual violence–only to be subjected to similar violations at the hands of the state to which they are appealing for sanctuary–lays out the tragic paradox surrounding their detention. In an appeal to the US government in late March, they declared that they came to the US “because we believe that this country has laws that are upheld and that violence doesn’t exist in the same way it does in our countries.” Now they’re torn between two lands and abandoned by two governments.
Even after they are released, the trauma could linger indefinitely. One woman recently recalled in a video diary that while she was detained at Karnes, her father, suffering from anxiety, went into cardiac arrest and died. She’s now unable to be with her family after his death, alone with the agony of missing his last moments. While she was locked inside, she recalled, “I can’t even call my home country… I couldn’t know about my father. And this is happening to a lot of people.”
The protests of the mothers inside underscore the stark contrast between the rhetoric of the White House–about trying to keep families together by granting a temporary reprieve to some undocumented parents, about deporting “felons, not families”–and the reality faced by migrant mothers who have endured unspeakable traumas to reach the US border and appeal for refugee status.
Family detention has long been condemned by advocates as cruel and unnecessary, but with the help of private prison companies GEO and Corrections Corporation of America, new family facilities have been authorized in the wake of last year’s influx of Central American migrant women and children.
There’s a reason the slogan of the movement to end deportations is #Not1More: they are not only collectively demanding their freedom, but also collectively rejecting the notion that the immigrant community can be divided by borders, legal strictures, political loyalties, or the label of criminality: the only line to be drawn is between freedom and injustice.
Now the women are giving ICE ten days to act, hoping that other others across the country will work with them in solidarity to put pressure on the authorities–just as the mothers inside won’t stop protesting until every last one of their fellow detainees is free, out of this place where no one belongs.