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Hunger strike by immigrant mothers at Texas facility prompts probe

Federal civil rights officials will meet Monday with two immigrant mothers who’ve been leading a hunger strike at a family detention camp in Karnes, Texas.

According to advocates working with the detained families, investigators from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties are expected to talk to the mothers about their allegation that they and their children were assigned to the facility’s medical clinic to punish them for the hunger protest.

According to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a Texas-based advocacy and legal services group, three women were taken to the medical clinic on Monday, the first day of the hunger strike. Two of the women were held overnight with their children, said the group’s advocacy director, Mohammad Abdollahi. Others were warned they could lose custody of their children as a result of participating in the strike, he said.

“The women technically had not started their hunger strike on Monday when they were put into medical, so there was no reason for them to be in medical in the first place, let alone be threatened with their kids being taken away,” said Abdollahi. He called use of the clinic “solitary confinement.”

The hunger strike has focused attention on a rarely scrutinized portion of the network of facilities run by the government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, part of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security. The Karnes County Residential Center, about an hour southeast of San Antonio, currently houses about 300 mothers and their children who are awaiting a decision on their petitions for asylum.

About 40 are participating in the hunger strike.

Some of the women have been held for as long as 10 months, according to one of the detainees, Kenia Galeano, a 26-year-old from Honduras who spoke with McClatchy. They began refusing food on Monday to protest the lengthy detention of their children.

“We have come to this country with our children seeking refuge and we’re being treated as delinquents,” the women wrote in a letter explaining their actions.

ICE officials said they don’t have solitary confinement areas and that the medical unit was not used for punishment. ICE said it also is investigating claims from some detainees at the Karnes facility that a member of a nonprofit group encouraged residents to stop eating to protest their detention.

According to a handbook of ICE standards, residents who do not eat for 72 hours will be referred to the medical department for evaluation and possible treatment. When medically advisable, medical personnel may place residents in a single occupancy observation room to measure food and liquid intake, the handbook states.

The Karnes detention camp is one of three facilities set up to house mothers and children in the United States. The Obama administration last year revived the once almost abandoned, and highly controversial, practice of detaining mothers and children. Since July, more than 2,500 immigrants, mostly women and children, have been detained at family detention centers across the country.

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