Reunited families are “desperate” to be freed — even if it means deportation.
Five hundred fathers being held in an immigration detention facility in Texas after reunification with their children announced a hunger strike Wednesday, out of frustration and despair over being “restrained from our freedom as human beings,” as one father put it.
News of the strike was made public Wednesday by the Texas advocacy and legal services group RAICES; the fathers planned to begin the strike that day, though RAICES could not confirm whether the strike had actually started as planned. (ICE officials did not respond to a request for comment.)
The fathers involved in the strike planned to sit down in three public “patio” areas within the Karnes Residential Facility, one of the family detention centers in Texas in which reunited families are being held, and refuse food. Their children have also agreed to a modified strike in which they refuse to participate in activities.
According to RAICES, the parents are striking to urge the government to “expedite” their cases. But in recordings and transcripts distributed by RAICES, the fathers appear simply to be frustrated by being stuck in a detention facility with no idea what’s going to happen to them next. “We don’t know anything,” one Guatemalan father, Olivio, said. “We are incarcerated in here and there’s not much we can do, so now we are all planning to gather in the patio and wait to see what happens.”
Reunited families are in a holding pattern waiting to see what comes next — and increasingly desperate
In fact, some fathers’ statements make it clear that they’d rather be deported than kept in limbo at Karnes. “We are desperate,” a father named Jorge said. “They should just do what they need to do, whether it is to deport us or allow us to be free to work with visas.”
Many of the fathers have likely already signed forms agreeing to their deportation; about 1,000 children over 5 had been reunited with parents who already had final deportation orders. (That’s the majority of the 1,500 or so who were reunited with parents as of a court-imposed deadline last week.) But they can’t actually be deported yet.
Federal Judge Dana Sabraw in the Southern District of California is expected to rule imminently on the question of whether to keep the government from deporting any reunited families for seven days, to give lawyers a chance to make sure that no parent was coerced into choosing to be deported without their child if they’d prefer to keep the family together (or coerced into choosing to withdraw their child’s case, as four parents told a lawyer over the weekend ICE had pressured them to do).
In the meantime, the government has reportedly agreed to pause any deportations until Friday so a federal judge in DC can decide whether to make a similar ruling and whether to combine the DC case with the California one.
The request not to deport parents is coming from immigration advocates, who are worried about guaranteeing due process for parents and children alike. Indeed, RAICES is concerned that some of the parents currently striking in Karnes might have agreed to deportation because they believed it would help them see their children sooner, and that they might choose differently now that they have been reunited and have the chance to speak to a lawyer about their case.
But the result, for the families, is a holding pattern. The government isn’t deporting them but it isn’t releasing them, either. And it’s not giving them access to asylum officers or telling them what’s going on.
Like family separation, family detention is traumatic
The parents in the Karnes strike aren’t protesting to improve specific conditions of their detention. They’re protesting being detained at all. One father who spoke anonymously on the RAICES recording said: “My son cries every day, he doesn’t want to eat, he’s very worried, and he’s only 6 years old. What worries me is that we are restrained from our freedom as human beings.”
The facility at Karnes is one of a few ICE facilities that are designed for families, in compliance with the standards the government is held to as part of the Flores court settlement. (These standards both set limits on the amount of time children can be placed in immigration detention and require them to be held in the “least restrictive conditions” possible while they are detained).
It’s one of the facilities that ICE official Matthew Albence described to a Senate committee Tuesday as “more like a summer camp.”
The Trump administration and many Republicans in Congress have been pushing to expand the use of family detention (and relax the standards for facilities) in order to keep parents and children in custody without separating them. The idea that facilities like Karnes are friendlier to family life than the alternative is crucial to this argument.
The fathers and sons in Karnes right now appear to disagree. In desperation, they’re going on a hunger strike because they just want their saga to end.
Author: Dara Lind