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How many hunger strikes will it take?

Jeanfamily From a letter of testimony by Christina Fernandez, a wife of a detainee held at the Reeves County Detention facility:

Are they asking for a massacre?  Or do they think that we the wives, children, parents, siblings and family members of these men will sit back and wait until we receive body-bags, because they didn’t do their job as officers of the law and staff members of the Federal Bureau of Prisons?

My husband is over 500 miles away from his home address (so are many of the other Cuban prisoners) and in a facility that is not for him.  He is a resident of the United States and though he is of Cuban nationality, he is not deportable.  I am a born US Citizen and so are our three daughters,  we have not seen my husband, their father, since January 2009…Something must be done for my husband and the other Cuban men, so that neither I, nor any of the other families receive a phone call of bad news. I want my husband returned to me and our daughters in one piece and alive.

The atrocious conditions and lack of medical care at Reeves have already led to two large scale riots by prisoners following the death of an epileptic detainee, as well as numerous protests, vigils and marches organized by activists and human rights groups. With no answer to the detainees and their families and no action from the Bureau of Prisons, Manuel Joan Friere Alfonso and Jorge A. Fernandez, along with 16 other Cuban nationals that are being held at the detention facility, are threatening to go on another hunger strike if they do not receive immediate redress for their grievances.

This comes close on the heels of the five individuals in Homestead, Florida who began the New Year with their pledge to Fast for Our Families. Jon Fried, Jenny Aguilar and Wilfredo Mendoza are some of the individuals who have vowed to consume only liquids until the President and the Department of Homeland Security respond to the demands of all those families that have been torn apart by detention and deportation. In a letter they wrote to President Obama six days after they began their fast, they expressed that:

The situation in which immigrants live and the hurt that the people we represent are enduring has forced us to take drastic action…we understand the risks we confront and we will not deny the fact that we are scared, but we cannot just sit and wait for Immigration Reform. Every day that goes by, dozens of families are destroyed. Every day that passes, hundreds of children are separated from their parents and thousands of young students are in detention instead of in college…Mr. President, please put yourself in our shoes and just imagine for a minute what it would be like to be separated from your beautiful daughters just because you were born in a different latitude.

Then, on January 5th 2010, the Fast for Our Families campaign received national attention when Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant leader who was detained on December 30th during a routine check-in with ICE, began his own fast in prison, joining his efforts with the fasters in Florida. Since then over 1,000 petitioners and 50 organizations have come together to demand Jean’s release.

Jean entered the U.S. on a green card, as a legal permanent resident, in 1986. Three years later, at the age of 19, he was convicted of selling cocaine and served 11 years in prison for his crime. He is now 41 years old, is married to a U.S. citizen, Jani Montrevil, and is a father to four American-born children. Moreover, he has since stayed out of trouble, started a van service to support his family and become a community leader; he is an immigrant rights activist with the New Sanctuary Coalition and Families for Freedom.

On December 30th, Jean made his check-in with ICE in New York, which he has done every month since he was released from prison, and was unexpectedly arrested and transported to a Pennsylvania prison. According to immigration laws passed in 1996, any immigrant convicted of a felony, even if retroactive, can face deportation, but ICE has not released any statements as to why he was arrested this time. Jean is on a hunger strike, refusing to eat food until the government reforms laws on deportation practices that “destroy families.”

Support for Jean’s release is growing after a rally of over a hundred people protested for the reform of these draconian immigration laws outside the Varick Street Immigrant Detention Center in New York on Tuesday, January 5th. Amongst the protesters were 8 clergy and 2 community members who were arrested for blocking traffic to prevent the transport of more immigrant detainees. Rev. Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church, who knows Montrevil well, stated:

I am being arrested because it is a moral outrage that our government would do this to such a great man and father. These immigration laws that destroy families contradict the values we should uphold as a society. They need to change now.

Jani Montrevil showed support for her husband’s decision to join the fasters in Florida and said of their common goal, “We will fight together!” And Jon Fried, who has almost completed a week of his fast was excited to hear the news. “It is great to know that this movement to keep our families together is spreading across the country, he said. All across the country, solidarity actions for Fast for Our Families are being planned, with groups in Texas and New Hampshire organizing efforts to join in support over the next week. 

We despair that such drastic, physical measures are required to ensure that families are reunited and future families are spared the horror of losing loved ones, and can only hope that these measures bear fruit before it is too late.

Please sign the petition to the President and the Senate demanding Jean’s release by clicking here.  If you represent an organization that would like to show support for Jean, sign on here.

Find more information about Jean Montrevil’s case here.

Photo courtesy of www.newsanctuarynyc.wordpress.com

UPDATE: As of January 25th, 2009, Jean Montrevil was released from detention. The fight continues to end the threat of deportation, but he is back home with his family and community members in New York City.

Are children of immigrants becoming needless statistics in the child welfare system?

Guest Blogger: Emily Butera from the Women’s Refugee Commission

What if I told you you could permanently lose custody of your child because you are undocumented? Or because you do not understand English? Or you are unable to communicate with the child welfare system and family court from immigration detention? What if I told you you might have to leave your child behind if you are deported because you may not have time to get the child a passport or will not be able to coordinate the flight arrangements? You might tell me that these kinds of things do not happen in the United States. Sadly, you would be wrong.

With immigration enforcement increasing, my inbox has been flooded with stories such as Encarnación Bail Romero’s. Encarnación is a Missouri mother whose son was adopted by total strangers – against her will, without her consent and despite her efforts to oppose the adoption – while she was in custody following a raid on her Missouri worksite. Encarnación was not adequately represented in family court, and was unable to read the court documents notifying her of the pending adoption and her right to appeal because they were in English, a language she does not speak. She is now fighting to regain custody of her son. However, she is scheduled for deportation to Guatemala in February and her attorneys do not know whether they will win her case – or win it in time.

Almost everyone who contacts my organization, the Women’s Refugee Commission, with a story of separation asks for help finding a family law attorney for the parent or for guidance on helping detained parents communicate with the child welfare system. Unfortunately, the assistance we can offer them is limited, and there are no easy answers.

Immigration law and family law intersect in a capricious manner. Family courts and the child welfare system have a responsibility to reunite a child with his parents whenever possible. However, family courts do not always look favorably on reunification in cases where a parent is detained or likely to be deported. The situation is further complicated by the tremendous difficulty child welfare workers and family courts have in locating detained parents, and the significant challenges parents face in complying with family reunification plans and participating in family court proceedings from detention.

In some cases, like Encarnación’s, judges base termination decisions on the fact that the mother does not have legal status and may be deported. In others, child welfare workers oppose family reunification because they think that a U.S. citizen child should not live in another country. Certainly, in cases where there is evidence of abandonment, abuse or neglect the child welfare system and family courts have an obligation to protect children. But in so many of these cases the parent’s only fault was being in the wrong place, with the wrong nationality, at the wrong time.

Because it is difficult to gather accurate data about the undocumented population it is impossible to know how many children have already been affected. What we do know is that hundreds of thousands of children may be impacted by their parents’ apprehension and that there is no effective or enforceable policy for preventing it.

When Encarnación told her story during a briefing in the House of Representatives last week you could have heard a pin drop. A number of attendees listened with tears in their eyes. Stories like Encarnación’s turn the numbers into faces for a moment, and I hope that Encarnación’s visit to Washington will help her reunite with her son. But action on an individual case is not enough. We need enforceable, nationwide screening protocols, with a statutory preference for release of parents and caregivers, to increase the likelihood that women like Encarnación can care for their children throughout their immigration proceedings and can make the best decision for their family if they are ordered removed. We also need to ensure that when parents must be detained they can remain in communication with their children, can comply with reunification plans, and can participate fully in their custody case.

The U.S. government has an obligation to enforce immigration law, but it also has a responsibility to protect parents’ fundamental right to custody of their children. The preservation of family unity is a legal and moral duty, but it is also smart social policy. As we go about immigration enforcement we must ensure that the children of immigrants do not become another needless statistic in the child welfare system.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times.