US must end hunger in immigrant detention

US must end hunger in immigrant detention
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Pilar, a 28-year old pregnant Guatemalan woman was detained for six months at a facility in San Diego, California. During her stay, she was chronically underfed. Not only would days pass between meals, but the limited rations that were made available caused Pilar extreme anxiety. The food always made her and other detainees sick after eating. She said ‘‘The food, well, we spotted maggots in it.”

That was in 2010. I met Pilar in 2011.

Like so many of today’s Central American migrants being held under inhumane conditions at U.S. detention centers, Pilar was fleeing gang violence and threats to her life in Guatemala. She left behind two children with whom she hoped she could reunite once she had obtained asylum in the U.S.


During her time in detention and today, Pilar’s experience does not represent the exception but rather the norm; despite the existence of detention standards issued by the U.S. government, including standards around the provision of food, instances of hunger and food deprivation prevail to an inexcusable and disturbing degree in detainee testimonies. 

I have been studying the experiences of people like Pilar with U.S. immigrant detention facilities for almost 10 years. In the short term, food deprivation induces physical discomfort and psychological stress. However, as a recurring event that prolongs an individual’s sense of uncertainty, food — both in its deprivation or when used to force-feed detainees who are on hunger strike — is a powerful and dangerous instrument of social control. 

Chronic food deprivation is often the driving force behind contemporary migration and quests for asylum. Central Americans arriving to the U.S., especially women, increasingly report conditions of hunger in their countries of origin. Research suggests that food-related trauma in detention centers and in the process of resettlement may re-traumatize those who are fleeing food insecurity.

Immigrant detention is not a partisan issue. We've seen it continue under both Republicans and Democrats. It is a human rights issue.

For over two decades, human and civil rights organizations have cited deprivation of food and water in addition to grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, discrimination and racism in U.S. immigrant detention facilities. Such conditions have underpinned accusations of centers resembling concentration camps.


And as with the Holocaust, the scars of immigrant detention will span generations.

Evidence from studies with the descendants of Holocaust survivors as well as prisoners of war from WWII — among whom malnutrition and starvation were the common cause of death — demonstrates that traumatic food experiences may endure for decades in the form of disordered eating. In short, it is not only survivors whose disrupted relationships with food may contribute to more disordered eating — future generations are also at risk. The traumas that have been incurred by migrant children, their families, and others being held in U.S. immigrant detention centers, will likely be passed on to their own children’s children. 

There are undoubtedly myriad problems with immigrant detention requiring serious attention by policymakers, some of which may be more easily solved than others. But the problem of hunger can, and should, be ended today.

Megan A. Carney is assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She is the author of “The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders” and director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.