Lawyers and advocacy groups allege that women and children held at an immigrant family detention center in South Texas are now facing retaliation for staging a hunger strike that has garnered national attention.
Supporters of the nearly 300 women and children currently held at the Karnes County Residential Center allege that the mothers have faced tactics of intimidation and isolation since launching what they call a Holy Week Fast earlier this week. At least three women were singled out and taken to the medical infirmary with their children, ages 11, 10 and 2.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement denies that any hunger strike is underway at Karnes, and said the agency is not aware that any women have fully refrained from eating at either the dining hall or in common living areas.
Women held in Karnes have been detained with their children for as long as 10 months, since immigrant family detention practices were renewed last summer. Legal advocates say the vast majority of the families are asylum-seekers, having been caught at the U.S. border after fleeing conditions of extreme violence in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
In a Spanish-language letter to ICE, the women detained at Karnes pledged to reject any detention facility services until their asylum cases are approved and their families are released. "We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status and we are being treated like delinquents. We are not delinquents nor do we pose any threat to this country," the letter read.
Polyane Soares de Oliveira, along with her 10-year-old daughter, was one of the women temporarily isolated from the main detainee population. Her husband, who lives in Boston with their two other children, said he received a frantic phone call this week from another woman detained in Karnes: Polyane was being held in the medical center, the woman told him, and the other mothers planned to break her out.
"That's what they do for punishment because they accuse her of being the leader of the hunger strike," Polyane's husband said over the phone. He said that his wife was threatened, told she would be separated from her daughter and that the disruptive behavior would negatively impact her asylum claim before the immigration courts.
Virginia Raymond, an Austin-based attorney, confirmed that one of her clients was also placed in the medical ward with her son. Raymond was told by ICE officials that her client was not in isolation and has since been released. "Pure retaliation," Raymond wrote in an email. "They are really putting the screws to these women, trying to break them."
ICE maintains that residential centers housing immigrant families do not have solitary confinement areas. In a statement Friday, spokesperson Shawn Neudauer said that the agency "fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, and all detainees, including those in family residential facilities such as Karnes, are permitted to do so."
One San Antonio paralegal has been banned from visiting the facility after having been accused of stoking flames for the protest.
"Things are tense," said Mohammad Abdollahi, advocacy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). "There’s a lot of intimidation and retaliation inside the center."