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What we know about a reported hunger strike by fathers in immigration detention

Reunited families are “desperate” to be freed — even if it means deportation.

The Karnes Family Residential Center in Texas is currently housing hundreds of newly reunited migrant families waiting to hear what’s next for them. The limbo and desperation, combined with the trauma of having been separated from their children for months, is leading 500 fathers to launch a hunger strike this week.
Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

Fathers being held in an immigration detention facility after reunification with their children engaged in a protest Thursday out of frustration and despair over being “restrained from our freedom as human beings,” as one father put it.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, the protest was minor: a brief sit-in. But according to the Texas advocacy and legal services group RAICES, which announced the protest, what’s going on is much more serious: a hunger strike.

Here’s what we know:

  • On Wednesday, RAICES announced that 500 fathers intended to begin a hunger strike that day. 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 had also agreed to a modified strike in which they refuse to participate in activities.
  • RAICES did not confirm whether the strike had actually started Wednesday.
  • On Thursday, RAICES posted the following tweet:
  • On Thursday evening, ICE officials put out a statement that denied that any hunger strike was going on at Karnes. The statement said: “Despite reports to the contrary, there has been no mass protest or hunger strike by residents housed at Karnes County Residential Center. On Aug. 2, a small group of fathers and their children (fewer than 50 total) staged a brief sit-in and expressed their concerns about their immigration cases. The on-site ICE supervisor thoroughly explained the process; the residents appreciated the information and dispersed. In addition, there were no unusual absences from school at Karnes.“
  • In response, RAICES put out a statement insisting that the fathers had in fact launched a hunger strike Thursday, and accusing ICE of “diminishing & dismissing their request.”

Both sides appear to agree that the number of fathers involved in the protest is closer to 50 than the 500 that RAICES originally reported. But whether there’s a hunger strike or not is a much trickier question to answer. ICE didn’t say anything about whether fathers were refusing meals, and there have been questions in the past about when ICE officially acknowledges someone refusing meals to be on hunger strike.

What is clear either way is that at least some of the parents being held in detention after being reunited with their families felt stuck in limbo, without an idea what’s going to happen next to them — even as that question is being litigated in federal courts on the West Coast and East Coast — and that their frustration with being detained is reaching a level of desperation.

Reunited families are in a holding pattern waiting to see what comes next — and increasingly desperate

According to RAICES, the parents are striking to urge the government to “expedite” their cases. But in recordings and transcripts distributed by RAICES on Wednesday, 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.”

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.”

Children and parents alike are clearly still processing the trauma of having been separated for months. But even beyond that, they are deeply distressed by their continued confinement.

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 “licensed programs” 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 engaged in some sort of protest — the nature of which might take a few days to become clear — because they just want their saga to end.