Hunger Strike Spreads; Haitian Immigrant Activist Freed

03/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On January 17 a group of immigrant rights activists in Florida suspended a hunger strike -- the Fast for Our Families -- which they began on New Year's Day. "After watching the suffering of our Haitian brothers and sisters, and seeing the determination of the Department of Homeland Security to ignore the voices of immigrant families fighting to stay together, we must continue our struggle in a different way," they wrote in their blog. Three of the fasters had been hospitalized during the 17-day protest.

The activists announced their decision a day after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano passed within a block of St. Ann's Catholic Mission in the Miami suburb of Naranja, Florida, where they were camped out. Despite pleas on the fasters' behalf from Marleine Bastien, one of Miami's most prominent and respected Haitian immigrant activists, Napolitano made it patently clear that she would ignore the fasters' demand for a meeting with her.

The protest is not over. Others have picked up where the fasters left off. On January 18, Martin Luther King Day, the Southwest Workers' Union announced that as many as 70 immigrants jailed at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview, Texas, were in the third day of a hunger strike. The strike began as thousands marched in Phoenix, Arizona on January 16 to protest the anti-immigrant crackdowns of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Among their reasons for the hunger strike, detainees at Port Isabel cited solidarity: with the people of Haiti, with the Fast for Our Families and with Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant and community leader detained in New York City. The hunger strikers are demanding an end to detention, deportation, raids and human rights abuses; and an immigration system that guarantees transparency, due process and consideration for families.

A day later, on January 19, 100 detainees at the Varick Street immigration jail in Manhattan refused to go to the mess hall, and gave guards a flier declaring they were on a hunger strike to protest detention policies and practices. According to detainees quoted in the New York Times, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) responded by sending in a SWAT team that used pepper spray and beat up some of the detainees; ICE then further punished the protesters by moving them into segregation cells or transferring them to jails in other states.

On January 23, the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City announced on its Facebook page that Jean Montrevil had been released from the Varick Street immigration lockup, and had finally been reunited with his wife Jani Montrevil and their children. Since December 30, when Jean Montrevil was detained by ICE at his regular monthly immigration check-in, hundreds of people had rallied in his defense and sent letters to ICE demanding his release. While his case is not yet won, he can at least remain with his family while he fights his deportation. Three key factors likely influenced his release: the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, which forced ICE to suspend deportations to Haiti; tireless mobilizing by his family and supporters in the New Sanctuary Movement; and, presumably, his own organizing behind bars, which inspired other detainees to join the protest movement.

The Fast for Our Families plans to protest at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. on January 27. Meanwhile, the Trail of Dreams, a 1,500-mile trek to Washington started by six students from South Florida on January 1, continues to make its way north. In their blog, the walkers wrote about stopping at a coffee shop outside Orlando to use the restroom, and being surprised with an outpouring of support from the employees there, who gave them free coffee and $40 in donations.

This movement for justice will continue to morph and spread. If you haven't joined it yet, now's your chance to make history.