How Immigrants and U.S. Citizens Behind Bars Came Together This Week
Northeast of Sacramento, California, this week at Yuba County Jail, women came together to protest. Though some were immigrant detainees and others were inmates in county custody, they recognized their shared experiences behind bars and decided to act in solidarity by joining a nationwide hunger strike led by immigrant detainees from South Asia and Africa.
“What’s happening in Yuba County is historic and unprecedented,” said Anoop Prasad, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice who represents Rajeshree Roy, an immigrant detainee on strike.
Abandoned by her mother as an infant in Fiji, Roy was left behind again when her father moved to the U.S. to find work. By the time she was able to join him in the U.S. on a green card at age eight, she had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle for three years. When she told her story, no one believed her, according to Prasad.
Roy’s history of sexual victimization is common among incarcerated women. Between 60 percent and 94 percent of state and federal female prisoners have a history of physical or sexual abuse, according to Prasad and other advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union. “It makes sense that Rajeshree’s story would be the one to bridge the gap between immigration detainees and people in state and county custody,” Prasad said.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and saddled with years of pent-up anger, Roy ran away from home. At 16, homeless and broke, she assaulted a man and robbed him. Tried as an adult, she spent 16 years in state prison. When she got out, she tried to rebuild her life: She found housing, got a job, married, and had three children. But her marriage became abusive, and she left her husband after it became clear her life was in jeopardy. Short on cash, ineligible for public benefits because of her criminal record, and facing eviction, she stole a garden hose from a Walmart at the request of a neighbor who said he would pay her and wound up back in prison.
Though she was up for release after the passage of California’s Proposition 47, Roy was immediately picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent to detention in Yuba County, where ICE rents out bed space at the jail. In spite of her status as a permanent resident, Roy was subject to immigration detention because of a series of laws passed in the 1990s that cracked down on crime.
As she did her first time behind bars, Roy found she had things in common with the women locked up with her for criminal convictions.
Prasad says Roy told him when he took her case, “ ‘We started talking about what we had done—murder, child abuse, and selling drugs—and the sexual abuse and domestic violence that we’d all been through. All of a sudden things started to connect for me.’ ”
Roy was at risk of deportation to Fiji, where she hasn’t lived since she was a child; it’s a situation many immigrants in the U.S. with criminal convictions held in detention facilities share.
“Particularly for South Asian and African detainees, there tends to be a pattern of being detained for a long time, and when bonds are awarded, they are excessively high,” said Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up & Moving, a New York City organization that has helped coordinate and represent immigrant detainee hunger strikers.
Roy’s bond for her theft is $10,000, which she can’t afford. Ahmed said some of the detainees he has worked with have bonds as high as $50,000.
On Thanksgiving eve, more than 100 asylum seekers in immigration detention began a hunger strike to protest their long-term detention and possible deportation. Most are Bangladeshi, though others are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and India, according to Ahmed. Detainees in Texas, California, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana have since joined them. Though some of the strikers have begun eating again for survival, as of Thursday Ahmed said there were still detainees fasting in Texas, Colorado, and Florida.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care, and we continue to monitor the situation,” Nestor Yglesias, a representative from ICE, told TakePart by email. “ICE’s Krome Detention Center and the Aurora Contract Detention Facility are staffed with medical and mental health care providers who monitor, diagnose, and treat residents at the facility.”
Now, as strikers reach their physical limits and begin to eat again, Ahmed says representatives from DRUM are meeting with officials at the Department of Homeland Security to discuss the plight of those in detention. “They heard the concerns, and we’re working with them to figure out next steps,” said Ahmed.
Strikers in county custody at Yuba County Jail, who ended their fast on Wednesday, released a statement of solidarity this week. “We are locked up together and refuse to be divided into immigrants and citizens. None of us belong in this cage separated from our families. We join the brave immigrant hunger strikers across the country in fasting to force recognition of our humanity,” it read.
The shared concerns of immigrant detainees and criminal offenders has been discussed among advocates for the two groups for a while, Ahmed told TakePart, but “in terms of people physically putting their bodies on the line, this is the first time. It not only indicates the crisis in the detention system, but that America has a crisis of prisons in general.”