Detained Immigrants Organize Hunger Strikes

Apr 14, 2019
Originally published on April 14, 2019 12:26 pm
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Asylum-seekers have staged hunger strikes at at least six immigration detention facilities across the country in the first few months of this year. The demonstrations were sparked, in part, by the fact that under the Trump administration, policies have been put in place that ensure that most asylum-seekers will remain in detention while their applications are adjudicated. That's a process that can take years. Michael Isaac Stein from member station WWNO reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Yelling).

MICHAEL ISAAC STEIN, BYLINE: You're listening to a video shot at a February rally for President Trump in El Paso. Two demonstrators unfurl a large canvas banner. It says, free the El Paso nine. The sign was referring to a group of Indian asylum-seekers in an El Paso immigration detention center who were, at that time, in the midst of a 74-day hunger strike. The group made national headlines when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers started force-feeding them.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) USA. USA. USA. USA.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: We have never seen so many hunger strikes in so many different places in less than three, four months.

STEIN: That's Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigrant rights activist based in Washington state.

MORA VILLALPANDO: At least the ones we have been able to engage with have been led by asylum-seekers.

STEIN: The most recent documented hunger strike occurred at the River Correctional Facility in Ferriday, La. It was initiated by asylum-seekers. And just like in El Paso, their primary demand was to be released while they wait for a ruling. We spoke with the wife of one of the strikers, who we'll just call Dee to protect her identity.

DEE: (Speaking Spanish).

STEIN: Dee and her husband fled Cuba last year, where they said they were imprisoned and tortured for their political views. They entered the U.S. at a legal port of entry at the southwestern border last December. And Dee's husband has been in detention ever since.

DEE: (Speaking Spanish).

STEIN: "You come to the U.S. asking for help, and they send you to a jail," she says. Prior to 2017, it was routine for asylum-seekers to be released on either bond or parole. But immigration lawyers and activists say the Trump administration is cutting those options off. President Trump has been clear about his intentions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No longer release - we're going to catch. We're not going to release. They're going to stay with us until the deportation hearing or the asylum hearing takes place.

STEIN: The president and immigration hardliners who advise him believe the asylum system is full of loopholes and argue that released migrants won't show up for their court date. In fact, Department of Justice figures show that in 2018, 89 percent of asylum applicants showed up to their final court hearing. Either way, parole and bond are becoming harder to obtain for asylum-seekers. In 2018, the majority of bond applicants were denied. The picture for parole is even more bleak. Jeremy Jong is a Louisiana-based immigration attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. He says in the past, parole was the rule not the exception.

JEREMY JONG: Essentially, after the new administration took office, the parole grant rate has dropped off of a cliff.

STEIN: The ACLU looked at five ICE field offices and found that between 2011 and 2013, parole was granted to 92 percent of asylum-seekers. In 2017, that figure dropped down to just 4 percent. And while asylum-seekers are being kept in detention, the chances of ultimately having your asylum claim approved has gotten harder and harder.

JONG: They'll ask, well, what are my chances? And you have to be honest with them and tell them, your chances aren't good. And then they'll say, but I'm going to die. What are you supposed to say to that?

STEIN: If the Trump administration's goal was to get asylum-seekers to give up, immigrant activist Villalpando says he's been partially successful. But she says that many remain defiant.

MORA VILLALPANDO: Yet we see the hunger strikes. There will always be a certain number of people that will remain strong and will try to keep their dignity intact and will try to expose the system.

STEIN: The number of people detained in ICE facilities is growing. In 2015, ICE held an average of 28,000 people in detention. Last year, that number grew to an estimated 44,000.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Isaac Stein in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.