Immigrant Detainees Go on Hunger Strike, Demand Basic Human Rights

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.

72 comments

Stanley R.
Stanley R.2 years ago

we're all immigrants. One world.

BJ J.
BJ J.2 years ago

They are here illegally and don't have same rights as citizens. Yes, treat them like people while they are here but get them back to their own country soon. Hunger strike is their choice. What do you think would happen if you or I sneaked into their country illegally & went on a hunger strike to demand our "rights"?

Deborah W.
Deborah W.2 years ago

PERSONAL CHOICE ... WELCOME TO FREEDOM

Barbara Mathes
Barbara Mathes2 years ago

I don't care, they are illegals Come into this country the correct way or get out! That is a line people have been using for too many years that they will do work the Americans won't BULL Get out of this country if you are illegal

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

My husband has spent most of his working life working in prisons. After he retired, he spent almost 2 years working for ICA (a company who holds illegals). This article is NOTHING like the truth, not even close! It is just inflaming people against the laws in our great country. I suggest that the writer enter another country illegally, get caught and see what happens and write about that.

Lynn C.
Lynn C.2 years ago

Jobs being taken??? Why do they "take" jobs? They do the stuff people in this country can't/won't do! Ask anybody in agriculture. Friends recently took a trip through California and said there were miles and miles of groves with rotting fruit on the ground. Nobody wants to work that hard here in this country, but they sure do like their produce to be on the shelves - fresh and cheap. You can thank those Mexican workers for that.

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy2 years ago

ARE YOU KIDDING ......I WENT TO PEACE CORP AFRICA...UNITED STATES PEACE CORP AND CAME BACK AS A PEACE CORP VOLUNTEER WHO HAD FINISHED HER SERVICE AND SOMEONE CALLED ME A FOREIGNER AND KEEPS CALLING ME A FOREIGNER BECAUSE I WAS A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER IN AFRICA. BELIEVE ME WE AMERICANS WHOSE FAMILIES MADE THIS COUNTRY WOULD BE SHIPPED OFF AS SLAVES IF THE POWERS THAT BE COULD DO SO AND THEY WOULD HAND OFF OUR COUNTRY TO MEXICO AND ANY OTHER SAUDI NATION OR CHINESE NATION THAT THEY COULD.

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy2 years ago

SEND them back to their home countries. Our taxpayer money would be well spent on flights sending these people back home where they started from. OUR COUNTRY PULLED THE WOOL OVER OUR EYES AS CITIZENS AND DECIDED TO LET BIG PRISON CORPORATIONS BUILD UP ALL OVER THE USA...THIS IS DISADVANTAGEOUS TO THE AMERICANS BECAUSE THEN IT LOOKS LIKE WE ARE DETAINING MORE PEOPLE OF COLOR AND THEN WHITE AMERICANS LOOK BAD. I AM OBJECTING TO THIS .....WE DID NOT VOTE TO BRING PEOPLE INTO THIS COUNTRY JUST TO SUPPORT BIG PRISON BUSINESSES....SEND THESE PEOPLE HOME NOW AND CLOSE THESE DETENTIONS CENTERS.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra2 years ago

They are here Illegally. Try getting Basic Rights if you are in a Jail in Mexico.

Berny p.
Berny p.2 years ago

I think the simple solution is to IMMEDIATELY deport anyone entering illegally, and to permanently imprison the "coyotes" or other ring-leaders bringing these poor people into the country.

The second solution is for the Social Security system to quit saying they can't figure out who is legally using an SS number, and thus prevent the illegal employment of thousands.

SO SO TRUE.....AND THIS APPLY TO ALL EUROPEAN COUNTRIES TOO AS IT IS PENSIONER AND WORKING PEOPLE WHO PAY FOR ALL THE ILLEGALS!