Support Imprisoned Migrant Women and their Struggle for Freedom

Megan Rue
Law for the People Intern

The GEO Group recently opened the Mesa Verde Detention Facility, a 400-bed detention center located in Central California. The rural location of the Mesa Verde detention center will “make it virtually impossible for [lawyers] to represent the detained population,” according to Ilyce Shugall, an attorney with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. As the LA Times notes, the Mesa Verde detention center is located in a geographically isolated rural region where there aren’t immigration court judges, so people detained within will have their immigration court hearings via live video feeds.

The ACLU has echoed this sentiment in a recently penned blog post, stating that the geographical isolation of the Mesa Verde center, located three hundred miles away from the San Francisco immigration court, “will create an unnecessary burden for people fighting to stay in the U.S. and avoid being separated from their loved ones.”

The geographical isolation of the Mesa facility contradicts the narrative of the family-friendly immigrant detention center that ICE officials deployed in order to legitimize the opening of these new cages, claiming that the new facility allows people to be imprisoned "closer to their families and communities."

NLGSF member and immigration attorney Lisa Knox notes that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “seem[s] to be sending people [to Mesa Verde who are] detained all over Northern California…[M]any people transferred there are being moved far from their families, their communities and their attorneys.”

The geographical isolation of the Mesa Verde center (and forced transfer of detainees away from their families) further exasperates the practices of displacement and separation that characterize U.S. immigration policies and the prison system.

The conditions of isolation, lack of access to legal resources, and destruction of family ties perpetuated within the Mesa Verde Center sound striking resonances with similarly violent conditions inside prisons across the for-profit detention carceral landscape. Beginning Tuesday, March 31, 2015, migrant women inside the GEO Group-managed Karnes detention center in Texas launched a five day hunger and work strike in protest of the deplorable conditions of imprisonment inside Karnes. The strike (and solidarity actions engaged by allies on the outside) constitutes an act of resistance against the mass criminalization and imprisonment of migrant people across the nation. According to a report by Colorlines, the deplorable conditions and human rights violations experienced by people inside Karnes include contaminated drinking water (due to a nearby fracking site), allegations of sexual abuse by prison officials, and limited access to legal aid.

The women declared their intentions to abstain from working and eating in a demand letter to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In the letter, the women articulate a broad range of grievances against the deplorable conditions inside Karnes and the criminalized status cast upon migrants, like themselves, who have fled to the U.S. in response to continual threats of violence in their home countries. In fact, advocates state that the striking women have all passed a credible fear interview, an initial stage in the asylum process that determines whether they would face persecution or death if deported home. The demand letter states:

“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 conditions, in which our children find themselves, are not good. Our children do not eat well and every day they are losing weight. Their health is deteriorating. We know that any mother would do what we are doing for their children.”

Although ICE officials purport that the hunger strike didn’t happen, detention center officials have engaged brutal retaliatory tactics against women perceived as leaders or instigators of the strike. These tactics of repression included caging women and their children in ‘medical infirmary’ (a form of solitary confinement), loss of internet and email privileges, threats of deportation, and threats of separation from their children. Between the egregious conditions described in the letter and the gendered retaliatory actions waged against the striking women by prison officials, the function of the immigrant detention center in destroying families and violating people’s right to care for their children becomes glaringly clear.

From the five-day hunger and work strike orchestrated by migrant women inside Karnes to the prisoner-led ‘riots’ in protest of the miserable living conditions inside another for-profit Correctional Center in South Texas, people being held captive in for-profit cages across the nation are mobilizing collective acts of resistance. The shared experiences of people inside prisons and detention centers illuminate the violent ways in which the carceral state violently disrupts and destroys people’s right to family. In their demand letter to the ICE, the women inside Karnes articulated how imprisonment prevents them from providing adequate care to their children, while the geographical isolation of the Mesa Verde center produces insurmountable challenges to people inside who are struggling to maintain connections to loved ones on the outside. The courageous acts of people inside demand solidarity from advocates outside of the walls, until collective liberation from the for-profit/immigrant detention system – and state violence as a whole – is achieved.