Last week, 27 immigrant women detained at the for-profit T. Don Hutto facility in Austin began refusing meals, demanding an end to mistreatment and their immediate release. Most are asylum seekers from Central America, which has seen a surge in migrants fleeing violence and abuse. The detainees said they’ve faced threats and unjustified surveillance as they languish in custody without hope of freedom. Immigration officials have denied the hunger strike is even taking place. While exact figures are unknown, advocates say the hunger strike grew this week substantially, possibly into the hundreds. Hutto is run by the country’s largest private prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America. The hunger strike is the latest by immigrant detainees around the country, following three others in the past month. "Women are fleeing Central America and Mexico because they are in danger," says Cristina Parker, immigration projects coordinator for Grassroots Leadership. "We respond by putting them in a prison for profit that cuts corners, that serves bad food, that neglects people’s medical care and needs. This is the system that these women are exposing, and they’re doing so, so bravely."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A hunger strike by immigrant women at a Texas detention center has reportedly spread. Last week, 27 women confined at the for-profit T. Don Hutto facility in Austin began refusing meals, demanding an end to mistreatment and their immediate release. Most are asylum seekers from Central America, which has seen a surge in migrants fleeing violence and abuse. In letters released along with their action, the women detainees said they’ve faced threats and unjustified surveillance as they languish in custody without hope of freedom. One wrote, quote, "I’m dying of desperation from this injustice, from this cruelty."
Immigration officials have denied the hunger strike is even taking place. But at least one immigrant detainee reached by Democracy Now! says she was transferred out of this facility in retaliation for her involvement. Francisca Morales Macías, a Mexican domestic abuse survivor, held for seven months, was moved to the mostly male South Texas Detention Complex on Monday. Democracy Now!’s Amy Littlefield spoke to Morales by phone and asked her why she and other women decided to go on a hunger strike.
FRANCISCA MORALES MACÍAS: [translated] We decided to do this fast because we are women of second entry, women who have entered the United States for a second time. And they are not giving us the opportunity to stay to fight our case here in order to be able to stay here in the United States. This is the reason.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Can you talk a little bit about the situation you faced in Mexico, why you came here to seek asylum?
FRANCISCA MORALES MACÍAS: [translated] In the past four years of my life, I have suffered persecution by organized crime, physical and verbal torture. I have not had a life. They were monitoring me on repeated occasions. They told me that if for some reason I left my country, they would find me and they would kill me. The times when I tried to leave my home city, they found me and made me return to my city. I come fleeing to seek asylum in this country. I want them to hear my case. Please help me. If they deport me, not much time will pass before they kill me.
AMY LITTLEFIELD: Did you feel retaliated against when they moved you to the Pearsall detention center after you went on hunger strike?
FRANCISCA MORALES MACÍAS: [translated] I felt very discriminated against because they moved me without giving me a reason. One morning they just told me, "You’re going." And they brought me here. There was no reason. I did not behave badly. I’ve always been a very hard-working woman. And if they investigate, they are going to realize that I was never a problem, nor will I be a burden to the United States. I am only asking that they give me asylum, that they give me freedom. I am not a bad woman.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Francisca Morales Macías, an immigrant detainee who was transferred out of Hutto in Texas after taking part in the hunger strike there. While exact figures are unknown, advocates say the hunger strike grew this week substantially, possibly into the hundreds. Hutto is run by the country’s largest private prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America. The hunger strike is the latest by immigrant detainees around the country. Three other immigration jails have seen hunger strikes in the last three weeks: the Adelanto Detention Facility in California, the LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana and the El Paso Processing Center in Texas.
For more, we’re joined by Cristina Parker, immigration projects coordinator for Grassroots Leadership. She gathered and released the letters written by 27 women at Hutto when they launched their hunger strike.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Cristina. Tell us the extent of this hunger strike and what the women are demanding. And respond to the prison saying they’re not on hunger strike.
CRISTINA PARKER: Sure. Thanks so much for having me on. We know that 27 women started last week, but we heard over the weekend from a woman, who’s since been moved in retaliation, that casi todo, which in Spanish means "almost all," of the women are on hunger strike. There is a contract that ICE has with CCA guaranteeing that at least 500 women will be held there on any given day. And, of course, that’s just to ensure their profits. So we know that that’s—you know, it’s possible that this hunger strike could be in the hundreds. That’s what we know from inside. We have a loose network of people who are giving support to the women on hunger strike, who have been in constant contact with them, who have heard from them via phone or gone to visit them in person or are receiving emails. And all of them say the same thing, that there is a hunger strike inside and that it’s spreading.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of other facilities also possibly joining in, what reports are you hearing about that?
CRISTINA PARKER: Right. Well, we heard earlier this week that the Adelanto facility in California had started on hunger strike, which brought the total number of people on hunger strike in all the four facilities to at least 95, if not more, because there are so many women in Hutto. You know, I think this shows a pattern. This shows that immigrant detention—it doesn’t matter where it is, it doesn’t matter if they’re holding men or women or, in the case of family detention, women and their children—immigrant detention is an abusive system, and people are rising up against it. And more and more are.
AMY GOODMAN: And you know Francisca’s case, the woman we were just listening to?
CRISTINA PARKER: I read her letter, though I’ve never talked to her.
AMY GOODMAN: And how typical is it?
CRISTINA PARKER: Very typical. Women are fleeing Central America and Mexico because they’re in danger. And they’re doing it the way that they’re supposed to. You’re supposed to come to the border and ask for asylum and present your case and say why you’re here, why you’re asking for help. And we respond to these women by putting them in a prison—in a prison for profit that cuts corners, that serves bad food, that neglects people’s medical care and needs. This is the system that these women are exposing, and they’re doing so, so bravely. And they’re being retaliated against.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And don’t federal officials have any monitoring responsibilities with regard to these private detention facilities?
CRISTINA PARKER: Well, they should. But what we know is that they actually leave so many of these facilities—and Hutto is an example of this—in the hands of private contractors. In fact, ICE isn’t usually there on the day-to-day, but since news broke of the hunger strike, they’ve been in there questioning women, asking women, giving—asking them who’s eating, who’s not eating, trying to take inventory of them, giving presentations on the dangers of not eating. We know that even though ICE denies this hunger strike, they’re taking it very seriously, because they’re rounding up women for transport to other facilities, they’re telling women that they’ll be deported unless they eat. So we know that they’re in there retaliating and trying to intimidate women. We actually received calls and emails last night. At least three members of our support committee, who are supporting the women, got calls and emails last night that at least six, and as many as 12, women were rounded up and told that they would be transferred or deported. And that, to me, suggests that ICE is trying to get rid of witnesses.
AMY GOODMAN: Cristina Parker, we want to thank you for being with us, immigration projects coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, author of the report, "For-Profit Family Detention: Meet the Private Prison Corporations Making Millions by Locking Up Refugee Families." We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.