Hannah Arendt once wrote that refugees  “represent the vanguard of their people.”  

Her prophetic words are apt for the mostly Central American women who started phase two of a hunger strike on April 14 to demand their release from the Karnes Immigration Detention Center in Central Texas.  


This second phase of protest by a group of 15 -20 mothers comes on the heels of a Holy Week hunger strike in which they released a document signed by 74 women demanding their freedom and rebutting the argument being made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that they and their children are a threat to national security of the United States.  

The document also denounced mistreatment, weight and hair loss of their children, and denial of bond for many women who have passed their credible fear interview but have not been released because of a prior deportation.  

Breaking their fast on April 4, the women gave ICE and the private prison corporation GEO 10 days to respond to their demands. ICE and GEO responded with only intimidation, repression, and misinformation.  

As part of their efforts to control the flow of information about family detention ICE and GEO began to ban legal aid workers who were assisting detainees. ICE and GEO have done their best to intimidate the women and their visitors, placing a metal detector in the visitation room, recording their conversations, and adopting an array of other tactics to prevent free expression, according to attorney Linda Bradmiller. 

Also in an apparent punishment for participating in the strike, ICE placed some women and children in isolated cells for hours with the lights out. The potential psychological damage of this type of repression adds another layer of trauma to the women and children on top of the already “irreparable damage” done by family detention, as described in a recent declaration by Dr. Luis Zayas, the Dean of the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.  

Karnes currently has the capacity for around 500 people and will undergo expansion to house an additional cohort of detainees this spring.  Combined with the grisly detention camp in Dilly, Texas, more than 2,900 women and children could be held against their will.  

These detention camps, along with the one in Berks County Pennsylvania, represent the latest phase in the evolution of a dynamic and monstrous migration control apparatus that has been built since 9/11. The facilities are run by private prison corporations GEO and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) that operate in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  

These corporations invest heavily in lobbying in the U.S. Congress, which established an immigration detention quota of 34,000 beds that must be filled in the facilities at all times. As privately-traded companies, they openly angled to profit from the refugee “crisis,” communicating to investors their optimism about the boon to their bottom line that the influx of refugees represents.  

In short, massive profits are being made by unaccountable private corporations off the congressionally mandated detention of vulnerable migrants and refugee families.  

ICE Director Sarah Saldaña dodged questions about the hunger strike and denied knowledge about punitive measures against the women when questioned by Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia in a hearing on April 14. ICE and GEO are doing their best to crush the strike and silence the women through a set of intimidation tactics, misinformation, and punishments.    

ICE has punished the strikers by threatening to take their children away. Deploying a twisted logic, ICE argued that any parent who goes on a hunger strike is putting their children in danger and therefore will be considered an “unfit guardian” and have their children taken away. Several detained women that we visited recently confirmed this to us. 

At least one woman was accused in writing of the “prohibited act” of “insurrection,” after a group of women spelled out the word L-I-B-E-R-T-A-D (freedom) on papers and held them up to the ICE officer filming their group, which had gathered in the patio. 

“Insurrection” is defined as “participation or encouraging another to participate in unauthorized activity such as protesting or rioting.”  It is considered a major offense on the same level as murder, rape, arson, drug use, and hostage taking.  

While immigration foes and jailers argue that these immigrants deserve what they get because they are “illegal aliens” and criminals, there are important facts we should keep in mind.  

First, refugees are not “illegals.” In order to seek asylum in the United States, they must come to this country and ask for it. They cannot petition for asylum from Central America and receive a visa in advance.  

Once they have requested asylum and expressed a fear of returning, they are legally entitled to a process for determining their refugee status. They are placed in civil proceedings, not criminal proceedings, and generally any violation of immigration law is waived if they prove their refugee status.  

Further, regardless of their legal status, the women’s actions are protected under the 1st amendment (right to free speech) and 5th (right to be free of retaliation and free from punishment without due process), as the Supreme Court has reaffirmed.  

These women are on the vanguard of defending our professed democratic values and the precarious legacy of the United States as being a haven for people fleeing persecution. 

Gonzales is an assistant professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Speed is an associate professor of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.