Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, Pine Prairie, Louisiana
August 10-11, 2020 and August 21-ongoing, 2020
by Ryan Fatica
On August 10, 48 African detainees in the Bravo Delta dorm of the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center declared their collective refusal to eat, continuing a yearslong saga of collective protest and repression that has characterized their fight for asylum on the continent. The majority of the strikers are English-speakers from Cameroon, where armed conflict is making the country increasingly unlivable, and where the English-speaking minority faces repression by the country’s authoritarian government. After crossing three continents and an ocean seeking safety in the US, their battle for human dignity continues within ICE detention.
Sylvie Bello, of the Cameroonian American Council, situated the hunger strike in the broader context of Black August, a celebration that began in California’s prison system in the 1970s to commemorate the death of Black Panther leader and incarcerated intellectual George Jackson.
“August is Black August,” Bello told Perilous in an interview, “and in the spirit of the ancestors before them and the elders before them who started what is known as Black August out in California, the Cameroonians at Pine Prairie led a protest in the form of a hunger strike.”
The strike follows other significant protests led by Cameroonians in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention this year, including one in February (Black History Month) and one on Juneteenth, a yearly celebration of the formal end of chattel slavery in the US. Citing the significance of Juneteenth, the strikers released a video and audio statement explaining their motivation for acting.
The August 10 hunger strike was met with immediate violence by guards, according to detainees who spoke with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
One striker reported that as they returned to their dorms after refusing to eat in the cafeteria, guards tackled three detainees, intending to take them to solitary confinement. A scuffle ensued as the remaining 45 detainees refused to return to their dorms until the three were released.
“I stood up so strongly,” the detainee recalled, “they had guns, I tried to remove [the officer]’s leg from them, they were trying to put them in a choke hold, I ran toward them, he was pointing a gun at us, a long gun. I asked them to shoot me and kill me.”
As a result of their courage, the three detainees bound for solitary were released and returned to their unit with the rest of the strikers.
Detainees paused the strike when ICE agreed to negotiate, but these talks broke down, and by August 21st the strike was back on. Shortly after restarting the hunger strike, all of the strikers were moved to solitary confinement.
One Cameroonian detainee who spoke with Perilous under conditions of anonymity described the situation. “After we left our dorm three days [ago] when we declared the hunger, strike the officials of Pine Prairie…let us know we cannot continue staying in our dorms because they need to monitor us…” he explained. “They need to confine us so that they will be keeping us on monitor. Then since Monday we’ve been taken forcefully to confined environment. …We have no access to TV, no access to yard, no access to medical treatment. We have not received any medical treatment.”
Rose Murray of the Southern Poverty Law Center has also been in touch with the strikers. In an email to Perilous, Murray outlined the repression they are facing as a result of their resistance.
“All 45 hunger strikers have been taken to [segregation], and one Cameroonian who just came out of surgery who is not even on hunger strike, whose health is precarious, has been taken as well,” Murray wrote. “Earlier today officials in militarized gear came to take them to [segregation], ‘dressed as if they were going to war.'”
Detainees also reported a lack of sanitation precautions in response to COVID-19. “In front of the strikers,” Murray wrote, “officials cleared out people from the rooms who had not completed their 14 day quarantine period, who had been transferred into Pine Prairie from other facilities. They did not clean out the rooms in between and instead the strikers were made to go into the rooms immediately after the quarantined individuals were escorted out.”
When asked how long their strike would last, the detainee explained to Perilous, “We cannot determine how long we will be. We can only determine how long we’ll be [striking] according to if our problems are being answered. I can’t talk for others, but I will talk for myself. I will [stop striking] if our problems are answered in the right way.”
Bryan D. Cox, ICE spokesperson for the Southeastern region, told the Louisiana Illuminator that “claims regarding an extended hunger strike by a group of detainees at the facility are not accurate.”
ICE guidelines only recognize a hunger strike once a detainee has missed 9 consecutive meals.
Listen to our full interview with a Cameroonian hunger striker here or read the full transcript.
Resistance to Indefinite Detention
Louisiana is the center of the immigration detention boom under the Trump administration. Nine facilities in the state signed new contracts to house migrants in recent years, many of them cash-strapped parish jails in rural areas with few job opportunities or other sources of economic activity.
The rapid rise in the number of immigrant detainees housed in Louisiana is in large part due to the low per-diem rate facilities in the state charge ICE. According to The Times-Picayune, the average cost of housing an ICE detainee in Louisiana is about $65 per day, as compared with the average national rate of $126 per day.
According to detainees and their supporters, the motivations for the hunger strike are many, including the conditions of the for-profit Louisiana detention center and the dysfunctional immigration system in which the strikers are caught. Many strikers complain of gross medical neglect, saying their conditions have continued to worsen during their long stay in detention.
According to newly-released detention data from ICE, during fiscal year 2020, the average stay in ICE detention is 61 days, which has increased from previous years. At Pine Prairie, the average length of stay is 86 days. Nonetheless, according to Bello, the majority of Cameroonians at Pine Prairie have been detained at the facility for more than a year, including one 23-year-old who has been held there for nearly two years.
Similar conditions exist at Winn Correctional, another for-profit detention center operated under contract with ICE in Louisiana. At Winn, the average length of stay in fiscal year 2020 was 118 days, but 8 Central American detainees interviewed by Perilous reported that they had been detained at the facility for over a year. Detainees led a protest earlier this month, demanding basic information about their cases and an end to indefinite detention, among other concerns.
Seeking Refuge Halfway Around the World
Although the majority of migrants seeking entry into the United States are Central Americans, a growing number began their journey much farther away, many boarding planes in various African countries to fly into South American airports with lax immigration standards, such as in Ecuador and Brazil.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of “extracontinental” migrants (those traveling to the Americas whose origin is not the Western Hemisphere) seeking refuge in the Americas has increased dramatically in recent years, due in part to stricter immigration policies put in place by European countries.
“Extracontinental migrants most frequently have the United States or Canada in mind as their final destination,” wrote Caitlyn Yates in a report last year on African and Asian migration to the Americas, “though given that this is an arduous, expensive, and often dangerous journey, some abandon their quest and instead remain in South America, whether by choice or circumstance.”
According to Yates, “The top origin countries for Africans apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol are Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).” However, she points out, these numbers do not include those migrants who turn themselves in at ports of entry, declaring their request for asylum. Data on migrants seeking asylum at ports of entry by nationality are not maintained by the government, so it is impossible to know the exact number.
According to The Los Angeles Times, “Mexican authorities apprehended a record 4,779 migrants from Africa in the first seven months” of 2019, “nearly four times the number detained during the same period in 2018.” Many of those migrants are from Cameroon.
When asked why Cameroonians were fleeing their country in such large numbers right now, Bello was very clear about where the blame lies. “The short answer: as a result of American foreign policy.” As the Illuminator reports, applications for the release of Cameroonians are denied at a rate 2.5 times higher than other applicants.
According to Bello, the immigration system in Louisiana is particularly dysfunctional. “In normal process”, Bello observed, detainees are released shortly after being detained, and in many states Cameroonians are continuing to be released even under the Trump administration. “Let’s take Adelanto, or Otay Mesa [in California],” Bello continued, “or even in Arizona we have several Cameroonians in Arizona who have been released by bond. Who have been released by parole. Who have been released directly by asylum. Louisiana will not let up. They just will not.” Neither, it seems, will the resistance.
A Legacy of Resistance
The strike at Pine Prairie is not an isolated incident, but the continuation of at least a year of consistent protest on the part of African immigrants against the failure of the global community to grant them refuge as they flee their often war-torn countries of origin.
According to Sylvie Bello of the Cameroonian American Council, this legacy of resistance to unjust immigration policies stretches back to before these migrants found themselves in ICE detention. On July 9, 2019, African immigrants staged a protest in Tijuana, Mexico, blocking Mexican transport vans in protest of what they said was systemic discrimination against African asylum seekers in that country.
A month later, on August 19, 2019, another group of African immigrants staged a protest in Tapachula, Mexico, near the country’s southern border with Guatemala. The asylum seekers were stuck in the city for weeks where they were denied the documentation necessary to continue their journey north. The migrants, mostly women and children, held banners and laid in the road, blocking transport vans at the border through which they’d been denied entry.
Alain Tita Mongu, a Cameroonian emigrant who spoke with The Observer explained the status of legal limbo many Africans found themselves in:
Two days after I arrived in Mexico, I was put in immigration detention in Tapachula for having entered the country illegally.
Two weeks later, they released me and handed me a document that I thought would guarantee me freedom to travel through the country– some of the Africans who arrived in Mexico a few months prior had explained to me that’s how it works. So I immediately hopped on a bus going north. But about an hour and half into my journey, there was a security check and I was sent to Tapachula. It turned out that the document that I had didn’t even authorise me to leave Chiapas.
I had to go to the Mexican immigration service in Tapachula’s Las Vegas neighbourhood. Once there, I realized that my document was utterly useless because it stated that I was “stateless”.
The hunger strike this month at Pine Prairie is at least the fourth major protest led by Cameroonians in ICE detention this year.
In late February, female Cameroonian detainees at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas engaged in a sit-down strike in protest of indefinite detention, inadequate medical care and other issues. The women released a letter at the start of their strike, explaining the conditions they faced:
Some of our sisters are sick and not being well treated. Others are running mad due to trauma and stress. One person is on a wheelchair who needs surgery and many others with serious health conditions who also need surgery but are be neglected. The medical department is very rude to us, they tell us we’re pretending to be sick even when someone is in serious pain, they laugh and mock at your medical condition, they give wrong medication to patients and they don’t attend to you when you really need medical attention.
Being in detention for more than 6 months as refugees we’ve never seen any Human Rights Official or Organizations for Refugees or even posts on notice boards. When we asked the ICE Supervisor, Mr. Nicholas Fawler, he told us he doesn’t have any connection with the Human Rights Committee or any UN Organization.
We are being treated unfairly and there is a lot of discrimination between the African women and the whites. Almost all the white women we came in with and even others who came after us have been released on parole and bond but we’ve been denied both parole and bond.
The following week, on March 3, 2020, male Cameroonian detainees at Pine Prairie organized a hunger strike that lasted at least ten days in protest of their conditions of confinement and the dysfunctional asylum process they faced.
In response, all of the hunger strikers were transferred to solitary confinement in retaliation for their protest. In the solitude of isolation cells, the detainees decided to end the strike. In an email, an attorney in touch with the strikers described the retaliation they faced:
43 of them were put in segregation to break up the strike, and while in [segregation] several of them reported that they were not given water and that they were forced to drink out of the toilet. This is unrelated to COVID-19, although the lack of basic sanitation is especially striking in the context of an exploding pandemic.
Months later, the same migrants again find themselves in segregation for acting together to demand justice. As far as we know, their protest continues despite their transfer to segregation, but it is not clear how long they will be able to sustain their strike after all they’ve been through.
Almost exactly a year after their protest at the Mexican-Guatemalan border and nearly two thousand miles further north, the migrants continue their fight for the dignity of a home and an end to a life of uncertainty and conflict. During their Juneteenth protest earlier this year, one Cameroonian held up a sign for the world to see, with the words “God is Watching” scrawled in thick, block letters. Neither a demand nor a plea, this simple statement of existential certainty was directed at the human community like a mirror held up, forcing us to face ourselves.
For more information on this event and the context in which it occurred, listen to our upcoming interview with Sylvie Bello on the Perilous Podcast, out later this week.
Article published: 8/25/2020; Article updated 8/28/2020