Why Mothers Are on Strike at Karnes Immigrant Detention Center

By Aura Bogado Mar 31, 2015

Seventy eight mothers being held at Karnes County Residential Center have signed a letter demanding their release. The Spanish-language letter, which was obtained by Colorlines early Tuesday, suggests that the immigration detainees are staging a hunger and work strike. Located in Karnes County, Texas, and run by the private GEO Group, Karnes been the site of repeated allegations of sexual abuse.

Most of these mothers are asylum-seeking Central Americans picked up along U.S.-Mexico border. Most have brought their children from Guatemala and El Salvador–countries with some of the highest femicide rates on the planet.

The mothers who’ve signed the letter have all been interviewed by immigration officials and have established a credible fear of persecution or torture if they were to be deported. But they either haven’t been given an opportunity to post bond for release, or the bond amount has been set too high. Their letter, in part, reads: 


"[D]uring this [time], no mother will work in the detention center, nor will we send our children to school, not will we use any services here, until we are heard and approved: we want our FREEDOM."

The strike began Monday with some 40 women and it has no definite end date. At a facility like Karnes, where detainees run a lot of the essential services, a strike can also impact people who aren’t participating.

An immigration officer I spoke with at Karnes who repeatedly declined to give her name laughed when I called on Tuesday. I asked why she was laughing and she answered, "These attorneys convinced them all to do stuff," and shortly thereafter they hung up on me. Phone calls to GEO Group staff at Karnes have not been returned. Here’s some more of what you need to know about Karnes and about why so many women are taking action there:

‘A prison for children’

Polyane Soares de Oliveira has been in Karnes with her 11-year-old daughter for eight months. Both are from Brazil and although they’ve established credible fear, a major step in the asylum process, they remain locked up. I spoke with her Polyane’s husband, who lives in Boston, late Monday, who described Karnes as a "prison for children." He says his 11-year-old stepdaughter has been questioned by immigration authorities without her mother or an attorney present. "They asked her questions like, ‘Are you a member of any gang?’ and pressured her to explain if she had ever killed anyone." His stepdaughter was only 10 when authorities questioned her.

Working for $3 a day

Although undocumented people are not authorized to work in the United States, undocumented detainees at Karnes help run the facility for just $3 a day. They clean and run the laundry facility–a big task for the 532-bed detention center.

Dirty frack water

Karnes City, Texas, is tiny: The population is roughly 3,500. But it’s home to major fracking operations. Residents have complained of contaminated drinking water. That’s why many detainees only drink bottled water. The cost per bottle, however, is $3–the exact amount of a day’s pay.

Kicking paralegals out

In February, a paralegal named Victoria Rossi published a detailed account of what happens at Karnes for the Texas Observer. She’s subsequently been barred from visiting Karnes as a result. Other legal aid workers have reported similar consequences at Karnes. 

Sexual abuse allegations

Most of the guards at Karnes are men and they have access to women and children’s rooms at any hour. Since August 2014, when it reopened as a center to hold immigrant families, detainees have accused guards of sexually abusing them, including assaults in front of children. A federal investigation that ended last month found that there was no such abuse. But that conclusion is based on interviews with guards and current detainees, including those who fear deportation if they report abuse to authorities.