A group of undocumented immigrants who entered the United States from Mexico through a legal port of entry to protest the Obama administration’s deportation policies launched a hunger strike Thursday over lack of access to telephone service, the activists’ representatives said.
“The facility is preventing them from making phone calls,” Mohammad Abdolahi, an organizer with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, said on a conference call with reporters. “As soon as they begin speaking and start telling us what’s happening, the call just drops.”
The activists, now known as the "Dream 9," are being held at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. According to Abdolahi, they have received messages saying their calls to family and fellow activists are restricted. All five women in the group had joined the hunger strike by Thursday afternoon, Abdolahi said, but he was not sure about the men.
A representative for the detention center, a 1,600-bed facility owned and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, denied that they were blocking the activists’ phone calls.
“I have had no reports that there have been any phone issues,” Eloy Detention Center spokesman Bryan Martin told HuffPost. “So either they’re indigent or they aren’t following the instructions hanging on the wall by the phone."
Three undocumented immigrants -- Lizbeth Mateo, Marcos Saavedra and Lulu Martinez -- crossed into Mexico voluntarily earlier this month to reunite with family members. They left with the intention of returning through a legal port of entry and openly declaring their status to officials, in one of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance’s most audacious acts of protest against the Obama administration’s roughly 1.7 million deportations.
“Millions of families like mine have been separated for far too long,” Mateo wrote in a blog post for The Huffington Post on Monday, before presenting herself to U.S. immigration authorities. “I waited 15 years to see my grandfather again, and to meet the rest of my family.”
Once in Mexico, they met up with five others who had either left the United States for personal reasons or had been deported. Together, they crossed into the United States through a legal port of entry at Nogales, Ariz. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detained them Monday night.
The lawyer representing the activists, Margot Cowan, said immigration authorities have yet to decide whether to admit her clients based on applications for humanitarian parole.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services describes humanitarian parole on its website as a way to “bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.” Cowan says in practice, U.S. authorities have broad discretion to grant humanitarian parole applications.
If humanitarian parole doesn’t work, Cowan says she’ll request asylum for the activists, based on the argument that they grew up in the United States and face the risk of being targeted by criminals if deported to Mexico.
“They for all intents and purposes are Americans, except on paper,” Cowan said. “And given the instability of Mexico today, they have no idea how to defend themselves and they stick out like a sore thumb.”
Winning an asylum application with that argument may prove difficult. From fiscal years 2007 to 2011 -- years that coincide with the onset of Mexico’s bloody war against drug cartels -- 21,104 Mexicans filed asylum applications at U.S. ports of entry, according to the Los Angeles Times. Only 2 percent of them were granted, compared to 24 percent for asylum seekers from all countries combined.
Applying for asylum may, however, buy time. Cowan says asylum litigation could last more than a decade. While in limbo, immigration authorities may release her clients from civil detention, provided they do not pose a threat to society or a flight risk, according to Cowan.
“We can go down that road, but it’s wholly unnecessary,” Cowan said. “The right thing to do is to approve these humanitarian parole claims.”