A rights group has urged US immigration authorities to end “retaliatory” measures against detainees as an estimated 500 female undocumented immigrants hold a hunger strike in a Texas for-profit detention centre, in protest against the facility’s harsh conditions.
Texas United For Families (TUFF), an umbrella organisation of rights groups, called on US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to halt “retaliation against women on hunger strike and that all women on hunger strike are immediately released”.
TUFF says that at least two hunger strikers have been transferred to other detention centres as a punitive measure, and six more are being prepared to be moved to other facilities.
At least one woman was temporarily put in isolation last week, the group adds.
The strike initially started with 27 women on October 27, says Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based group that campaigns against for-profit detention centres.
The women are mostly from Central America – including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – and are protesting harsh conditions in the T Don Hutto detention centre in Taylor, a town 56 kilometres south of the Texas capital.
“Their grievances are like the grievances we always hear about in immigrant detention centres – bad food, belittling or abusive treatment by guards, poor medical care,” Cristina Parker, programmes director at Grassroots Leadership, told Al Jazeera.
“But one thing that is very clear is that they are not asking for anything other than to be released – for their freedom,” she said. “They came to our country for protection, but we have put them in this prison.”
As part of an agreement with ICE, the detention centre is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison contractor. The federal government pays CCA $150 a day for each detainee, Parker said.
T Don Hutto’s spokesperson has denied that a hunger strike is taking place. Meanwhile, ICE released a statement claiming that it “takes the health, safety and welfare of those in our care very seriously, and we continue to monitor the situation”.
“Currently, no one at the T Don Hutto detention centre was identified as being on a hunger strike or refusing to eat,” said ICE.
Parker said that most of the detainees are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where female homicide rates rank first, second, and seventh, respectively, in the world, according to United Nations figures.
In an October 2015 report, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) painted a grim picture of life for women subjected to gang and domestic violence, who are fleeing by the thousands.
Women fleeing those countries endured “harrowing experiences of rape, assault, extortion and threats by members of the murderous street gangs”, the UNHCR report concluded.
In T Don Hutto and similar facilities, many of the women are unable to access or afford legal counsel and have to represent themselves in their asylum cases, despite not speaking English fluently.
The situation is doubly difficult for immigrants who have been deported from the US in the past, said Parker, explaining that they are often detained for longer periods and face a higher threshold for proving their need to attain asylum.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, a member of the community who has been visiting the detainees for the last two years, explained that “several of the women are extremely ill”, as the hunger strike moves forward.
“I’ve met with people who are escaping political and criminal violence, and others who are being denied asylum even though they are facing serious domestic violence,” the source said, adding that many of the women have been in T Don Hutto for more than a year.
“The women are scared, and they see others being sent back to certain death,” the source said. “When you ask for asylum, you’re basically saying your home country is unable or unwilling to protect you.”
T Don Hutto is one of more than 22 for-profit immigrant detention centres run by private contractors in Texas. Similar facilities dot the map of the US.
The record number of deportations under President Barack Obama led the National Council of La Raza advocacy group to deem him “deporter-in-chief”.
During the first five years of his presidency, Obama deported more than two million people, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Congress has set a quota mandating that ICE holds a minimum of 34,000 immigrants in detention centres each day.
For-profit detention centres across the country have been hit by a wave of hunger strikes in recent weeks.
Since October 30, more than 300 men are believed to be on hunger strike in another for-profit detention centre in Adelanto, California.
At least 54 detained Southeast Asian immigrants held a week-long strike in a detention centre in El Paso, Texas.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_