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Hungering for Justice at the Port Isabel Immigration Detention Facility

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Zoila Molina, 44, is on her fourth day of hunger strike in front of the Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas. Suffering from diabetes and having recently undergone surgery, her health is fragile but she’s willing to risk her health to draw attention to the plight of her 24-year old son Ronald.

Ronald has been in the immigration detention facility for four months. He was sent from Miami, Florida, because of a misdemeanor for possession of a gram of cocaine. He served his time and paid his fine. But now he is facing deportation to Nicaragua under the Department of Homeland Security’s “Secure Communities” policy, which started in 2008 under Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At least 150 detainees, including Zoila’s son, Ronald, are on hunger strike at the facility near Brownsville. This is the second time in less than 12 months that detainees have resorted to starving themselves to get attention from the U.S. government. In the old days the PIDC, which is a federal facility, was considered a temporary facility. These days it is brimming with detainees. Some have been there almost a year.

The Secure Communities program identifies people who are legal permanent residents in the United States that have committed crimes. They are placed in detention. Most are deported. Whenever ICE touts the program it emphasizes that the agency is going after dangerous criminal aliens – arrests involving national security, homicide, kidnapping and assault.

It’s hard to argue with that. Who wouldn’t want dangerous sexual predators and murderers deported back to their home countries? Where things get fuzzy is with people who have committed lesser offenses like charges for possession of small amounts of drugs or a violation for trespassing on private property during a spat with a neighbor.

Does a man like Ronald, who has two children and another one on the way, deserve to be deported to Nicaragua for the equivalent of a ¼ tsp. of cocaine?

ICE says it has a risk-based model to analyze each case so that its resources are spent on deporting the most dangerous criminal aliens first. But in reality many small-time offenders – the low hanging fruit — like Roland are caught up in the system.

A recent report by the Migrant Policy Institute states that instead of murders and rapists, most detention facilities hold immigrants that have drug possession charges or traffic offenses such as Driving Under the Influence.

With no lawyers to represent them, little money, and far away from home detainees like Roland can be held for months in legal limbo.

I spoke with Zoila Tuesday about her son. Zoila was granted political asylum in the eighties after escaping the C.I.A.- funded civil war in Nicaragua. She has five children.

Last month Ronald turned 26 in jail. He has been in the Port Isabel Detention Center for four months. His wife is about to give birth to their son at any moment. They have two other children. With the primary breadwinner in the family locked up things are getting desperate. The only thing Zoila could do was fly to Texas and join in the hunger strike to try and bring some attention to her son’s plight.

“I’m not leaving here until they give me my son,” she told me with determination. On Sunday she was allowed to visit with Ronald for the first time.

“He cried,” Zoila says. “He cried and begged me not to leave him. He said ‘it’s horrible and depressing in here.’”

Ronald left Nicaragua when he was an infant. The only family he has left lives in the United States, Zoila says. She fears that he will be harmed or killed if he returns.

The few immigration lawyers that practice in Brownsville can’t keep up with the paying cases let alone those who cannot pay. There are more than 4,000 detainees being held in their county alone. The organization Pro Bar that does pro bonos cases – and does an admirable job—only handles asylum cases. So most detainees like Ronald are out of luck.

On Monday Zoila met with U.S. Congressman Solomon Ortiz who represents the Brownsville area in Congress. Ortiz recently signed on as the primary author of Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation in the House.

Zoila says she has the utmost faith that Congressman Ortiz will help her and her son. “I could tell he has real heart and is someone who cares,” she says.

But with the crumpling of healthcare reform and the upcoming elections it will be some time before Congress tackles the emotional and divisive topic of immigration reform. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced that there were at least 100,000 detainees that could be released with ankle monitors or other monitoring devices. The caveat is they need Congress to pass a bill to authorize them to do it.

So which is a worse crime: Possession of a small amount of drugs or deporting a man with a wife and three children?

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.