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As Detained Immigrants Hold Hunger Strikes, Results Aren't Guaranteed

How effective are hunger strikes by immigration detainees? Recent evidence seems to suggest they work for some groups but make matters worse for others.

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The conditions at an immigration detention center in Hutto were too much to bear for Honduran Amalia Arteaga Leal, one of tens of thousands of Central Americans who fled their homeland since last year. She said that they are being mistreated by guards and called names.

So she took a strength-in-numbers approach on Oct. 28 and joined a hunger strike, which eventually included at least 150 women at the center, their supporters said. The protest aimed to draw attention to their plights and force the federal government to grant their release from detention. 

“I thought I was going to get help [in Texas]. But I’ve been locked up six months, almost seven,” Arteaga Leal said by phone last week from an immigration detention center in the South Texas City of Pearsall, where she has been transferred.

“And I can’t stand the treatment.”

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said last month the department was unaware of any hunger strikes and that detainees are not lacking for food, medical or mental health services. But Arteaga Leal has drawn the attention of several media outlets. And hunger strikes as a form of protest drew national headlines when a student leader sought the removal of the University of Missouri System’s president, saying he didn’t handle incidents of racism properly.

Hunger strikes aren’t a guaranteed way to gain sympathy from the public and advance a cause, many experts say. And immigrant rights supporters concede that it could take several factors coming into play at once that determine how successful the immigrants’ protests are. 

“A hunger strike that doesn’t get attention from outside people is seldom very effective because it’s a weapon of the weak, and the real weapon tends to be that it puts the government in a negative light,” said Fran Buntman, an associate professor of sociology at The George Washington University whose specialties include prisons, social change and law. “They can be effective, but they’re a very hard tactic to mount.”

Aside from the challenge of getting the story out, hunger strikes obviously cause a tremendous amount of strain on the mind and body, Buntman added.

Cristina Parker, the immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership, an immigrant advocacy group and private-prison watchdog, sees a partial victory in the hunger strikes at the detention center.

“I spent eight hours a day responding to media requests. I think they were successful in being heard,” she said. 

She adds that several other factors, including size and scope of the protest and how the immigrants and their supporters handled any repercussions like deportations or transfers, would have to be considered before labeling the protest a complete success.

It's unclear how long Arteaga Leal or others at the centers will be in detention. ICE doesn't comment on specific cases, and immigrants' cases vary from person to person. Some could eventually be released if they are given a notice to appear before an immigration judge, while others could be deported back to their homelands. 

Parker said Arteaga Leal has started eating again because refusing food was too much of a strain on her body. She said that some of the original strikers are still fasting on a rotating basis, though it's unclear if Arteaga Leal will elect to go the same route.

Parker also alleged that ICE officials transferred the detainee out of Hutto as retaliation for her protest. ICE officials didn’t respond to the allegations about retribution against Arteaga Leal.

But ICE spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said in late October that there was no hunger strike that ICE was aware of.

“ICE is not aware of any detainees who have stopped eating or who have expressed they would stop eating,” Pruneda said in an email. “ICE’s T. Don Hutto Detention Center is staffed with medical and mental health care providers who monitor, diagnose and treat residents at the facility.  Individuals have access to meals served three times daily at the cafeteria and are also able to purchase food from the commissary.”

Parker said another detainee who went on strike was transferred to Houston and then deported. But another woman who took part was eventually released, though the circumstances of her case aren’t known.

Parker said the “he said-she said” aspect of what ICE says compared to what attorneys, advocates and the immigrants themselves report might hinder the efforts. But so far, the attention on the current strike has been encouraging in advocates' efforts to draw attention to the plight of the detainees who can't leave the facilities. 

She also cited an earlier hunger strike at the Karnes Family Detention Center, where some women were released, as a reason for hope. But she also said that was part of a larger outcry at the time due to the attention a pending court case involving immigrant detention was garnering. The women were also housed with their children, which helped garner sympathy for the detainees.

One thing that could work in Arteaga's favor is that she is an immigrant fleeing poverty and violence instead of an alleged or convicted criminal like the hunger strikers in a U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"They are far more sympathetic for the public," Buntman said of the immigrants who were fleeing violence in Central America. But she added that being a single mother may be used against a person if the government threatens to declare the parent unfit or mentally unstable. In a four-page memo on ICE's website that outlines how it handles hunger strikes, the agency states that a mental evaluation will be conducted on all protesters. 

"Procedures for identifying and referring to medical staff a detainee suspected or announced to be on a hunger strike shall include obtaining from qualified medical personnel an assessment of whether the detainee’s action is reasoned and deliberate or the manifestation of a mental illness," the memo reads. "Upon medical recommendation, the detainee may be placed in isolation."

The guidelines also state that, if necessary, a medical authority "may recommend involuntary treatment when clinical assessment and available laboratory results indicate the detainee’s weakening condition threatens the life or long term health of the detainee."

For Arteaga Leal, who recently seemed uncertain about what would come next, all that seems to matter are her current efforts and what those will accomplish.

“All this that I am telling you, I’m not sure if it’ll lead to some protection or something,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

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