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Migrant Parents Launch Hunger Strike In Detention Centers


Migrant parents in a detention center in Texas say they are staging a hunger strike to highlight their plight. Recent news stories have been filled with the joyous reunions of migrant parents who had been separated from their children at the Southwest border, yet hundreds of families were reunited only to be detained again, this time together. NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hundreds of reunited families are growing desperate in detention because immigration authorities won't release them into the U.S. and cannot deport them home because of a court order. One Honduran father who declined to give his name fearing retaliation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement was interviewed inside a detention center on a bad phone line by a pro-immigrant group called RAICES. The audio was made available to journalists.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Everyone has agreed that we will stop eating. We're doing so because we don't know what will happen to us. We need to know if we'll be deported or allowed to remain in this country. We are asking the government to free us. We are not criminals.

BURNETT: The two main family confinement facilities are run by private for-profit corporations for ICE. Reunited fathers and their children are going to the Karnes County Residential Center about an hour southeast of San Antonio. Reunited mothers and their kids are being sent to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley southwest of San Antonio.

Immigrant advocates tell NPR that ICE has transferred more than 500 of these families to the two facilities. Immigration attorneys believe the government wants to put them on a fast track to deportation, but a federal judge in San Diego has slapped an indefinite stay on removals in response to an ACLU lawsuit. So ICE cannot deport any reunited families for the time being, and there's not enough room to detain all of them. Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch is a Texas immigration attorney who says lawyers are baffled at who gets released and who doesn't.

KATE LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: There was a lucky group of parents who got reunified and got released, and then there was a group of parents who got put into family detention centers. And there doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason as to which group people fell into.

BURNETT: ICE had no comment on the reported hunger strike at Karnes. A spokesperson said in an email to NPR, this is not the first time RAICES has encouraged a hunger strike. Matthew Albence, the deportation chief at ICE, testified on Capitol Hill yesterday. He addressed criticism of conditions inside the FRCs - family residential centers - Karnes and Dilley.


MATTHEW ALBENCE: With regard to the FRCs, I think the best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp. These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water. They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities. There's basketball courts. There's exercise classes. There are soccer fields that we put in there.

BURNETT: Yet four Central American fathers interviewed by RAICES described a hopelessness and desperation among detainees that no amount of recreational opportunities would appease. Here's the Honduran man who asked not to be identified.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) My son says to me he hasn't done anything to be incarcerated here. He says, Daddy, I'm not a criminal. We want to get out. He cries every day. He doesn't want to eat. He's only 6 years old.

BURNETT: Some detained parents say they freely agreed to be deported in order to put an end to the separation nightmare. Others say they were pressured to sign voluntary removal papers with their child used as leverage, a charge ICE rejects.


OLIVIO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: A different father who gave his name as Olivio said ICE told him he would be reunited with his son at the airport when he was deported to Guatemala. He said he was willing to forego his asylum request and sign the deportation papers to be with his son again. He described his ordeal since crossing the border illegally and getting apprehended 10 weeks ago. He was transferred to five different ICE jails and separated from his son for eight of those weeks. Now they're together, but they're still not free.

Olivio says detained children will not participate in the hunger strike. For their part, they'll protest by refusing to take part in school activities inside the detention center. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.