Above: Protesters outside of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in November.
In retaliation for protesting poor medical treatment, dozens of women detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, which houses asylum seekers, were suddenly transferred to a facility in Laredo last week. The move follows reports from immigration advocacy group Grassroots Leadership that those involved in the protest were barred from having visitors, including legal aid providers and members of the community.
In a statement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed that 80 detainees held an “impromptu ‘sit-down’ protest” last Monday. “The detainees told facility staff they would continue their protest until they were released from custody; however, those actions compromised security protocols at the facility and blocked access to services including visitation, court, and the dining area,” an ICE spokesperson said.
According to ICE, facility staff told detainees that they may be transferred if they did not comply with requests to clear “critical pathways.” The agency confirmed that 47 women were ultimately moved to the Laredo Detention Center.
In a statement, CoreCivic, the private prison contractor that operates the facility, offered a different account: The women were queuing for commissary when they asked to speak with ICE officials. CoreCivic said that ICE then met with the detainees.
The women who participated in the sit-in are part of a large group of women from Cameroon who are housed at T. Don Hutto, according to legal service providers familiar with the case. Bethany Carson, an immigration researcher and organizer for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based nonprofit, said that detainees estimate that more than 300 women from Cameroon had recently arrived at the center. Most of the women the group has spoken with have little legal aid.
Carson said legal service providers familiar with the cases confirmed that the women had arrived in Laredo last Tuesday. Carson said the legal service providers have declined to make their identity public due to fear of retaliation and have yet to make contact with each woman individually.
“It was very, very swift retaliation from ICE,” Carson said.
Lawyers for the women transferred confirmed to the group last week that after the women were moved, the womens’ upcoming court dates were rescheduled for months in advance or—in some cases—cancelled and have yet to be rescheduled. She said Laredo cases are typically assigned to the same court.
The move, she said is significant: Laredo is isolated, and Grassroots Leadership has previously received complaints of detainees in the facility being intimidated into signing their deportation orders, which would drop their asylum claim and begin deportation proceedings.
“The biggest thing is that when people are transferred to Laredo, it is one step closer to deportation,” Carson said.
Carson said the sit-in was to protest a lack of proper medical attention for long-term illnesses including stomachaches and migraines. “What we hear is that they are given ibuprofen or water for things that obviously need a higher level of treatment,” Carson said.
At a protest outside the Taylor facility in November, women who had formerly been detained in T. Don Hutto described the harsh conditions to the Observer. Brendy Galdamez, who was among the former detainees who spoke out at the November rally, said the prisoners were put in extremely low temperatures and received inadequate medical care, echoing complaints heard by Grassroots Leadership.
“We got sick all the time because of the cold and all they gave us was ibuprofen and other painkillers,” Galdamez told the Observer in November.
“[The protest] is a result of prolonged confinement,” Carson said. “Detention is not a place that is safe or dignified to stay in, especially this long.”
Deborah Alemu, a community organizer who was once an undocumented immigrant, has been working with Cameroonian women at T. Don Hutto. “The Cameroonian women who have already been denied basic rights in their home countries are now being denied basic medical attention,” Alemu said.
Due to current U.S. policies surrounding asylum seekers who arrive at ports of entry, she said the women are not eligible for parole. Alemu said they would have had a higher chance of parole if they had been caught entering illegally.
Alemu says she understands why the women protested. “What else can you do?” Alemu said. “Your parole has been denied, nobody is coming to check on you, the system has failed you, so you resort to the one thing you do have—each other and their own bodies.”
More than 1.8 million asylum-seekers have been expelled under the pandemic-era statute, which allows the Centers for Disease Control to declare a health crisis and bar immigrants from entering the country.