Immigration detention in the United States is a grim place: as non-citizens, detainees aren’t entitled to the same Constitutional rights citizens are, including the right to a speedy trial or the right to representation. Immigrants can languish for months or even years before even hearing the charges against them, only to be rapidly shuffled through a confusing legal process that ends in deportation — even if someone is actually in the country legally.
Advocates in and outside of the system have been working to change that, but recently, immigration detainees decided to borrow a tactic used in prison rights organizing: they’re going on hunger strike.
More than 400,000 immigrants are held in detention facilities across the United States, many of them run as for-profit enterprises by private companies. Detainees face inadequate health care, sexual harassment and assault, physical assault, and dangerous living conditions on a day-to-day level along with abridgment of their civil rights. Legal representation is only available to those who can pay for it, which is a significant barrier for immigrants, many of whom are low-income and have limited resources for retaining legal counsel. Meanwhile, visits from friends and family are nearly impossible, leaving immigration detainees in a state of extreme isolation.
Furthermore, some immigration detainees have intellectual or cognitive impairments that make it even more difficult for them to understand the legal proceedings against them. The ACLU and other groups have even documented cases of legal residents and citizens (sometimes people born in the United States!) falling into detention and being deported because they lack the capacity to defend themselves. In a regular court of law, a capacity determination would be a routine part of a case before making any life-changing decisions, but immigrants aren’t subject to these basic human rights.
In Tacoma, Washington, detainees started refusing food in early March, and now detainees in Texas have joined them in a solidarity action. In both cases, the strike is meant to call attention to mass deportations, and to demand an immediate end to the harsh immigration policies which have dominated the United States in recent years; while the Obama Administration has liberalized the country in some ways, deportations have been skyrocketing under its tenure, and they show no sign of slowing or stopping even as the administration tries to push through legislation like the DREAM Act.
The hunger strikers aren’t just demanding an end to mass deportation. They’re also asking for fair, humane treatment in immigration detention facilities, with a particular focus on crowding, poor health care and inadequate food. Officials are striking back by putting organizers in solitary confinement and attempting to break up communication methods used both for organizing and solidarity; similar tools were used in abortive attempts to get prisoners to stop hunger striking across the country.
When prisoners went on hunger strike, they ultimately won some concessions from authorities and drew the nation’s attention to the hazardous and inhumane conditions in U.S. prisons. Could this hunger strike do the same thing for immigration detention?
Photo credit: Elvert Barnes.