A mass hunger strike has reportedly erupted in a notorious immigration jail in Florida, where Haitian immigrants are demanding to be released rather than deported to the island nation already reeling from a deadly earthquake and violent political crisis.
The Glades County Detention Center is run by a local sheriff in Moore Haven, Florida, and incarcerates immigrants under a federal contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At least 100 people are staging a hunger strike at the jail, according to Freedom for Immigrants, a group that has received calls from multiple strikers. As the hunger strike began this week, the Biden administration reportedly angered fellow Democrats and human rights advocates by resuming deportation flights to Haiti in order to turn away migrant families seeking asylum.
Along with other immigration and civil rights groups, Freedom for Immigrants has filed multiple civil rights complaints detailing an array of alleged human rights abuses at Glades County Detention Center over the past two years, including medical neglect during COVID outbreaks and retaliation against participants in hunger strikes and other peaceful protests. Members of Congress have called on federal officials to halt transfers to the jail and shut it down.
Freedom for Immigrants reports that a number of the hunger strikers are Black and originally hail from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, although many have lived in the United States for years.
“Jonas,” a Haitian man who said he has lived in the U.S. since he was a small child and asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, said he is hunger striking to be released while officials consider an appeal to his immigration case. Jonas said his mother is in the hospital recovering from cancer, and he wants to see his 12-year-old daughter. His parents and siblings are U.S. citizens.
“How are you going to deport someone like me who has been here for 43 years?” Jonas said in a statement provided by Freedom for Immigrants. “I have no family ties in Haiti. Haiti is in turmoil right now.”
Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the Caribbean, is indeed in turmoil. On July 7, assassins killed President Jovenel Moïse, setting off a complicated political crisis as competing politicians, protest movements and gangs claiming to represent poorer neighborhoods rushed to fill a power vacuum. Escalating violence has displaced more than 19,000 people from the capital city of Port-au-Prince alone.
In mid-August, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked southwestern Haiti, killing at least 2,200 people and injuring 12,000 more. The earthquake was quickly followed by a tropical storm that brought heavy rains and flash flooding that reportedly increased the death toll. More than 120,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and the disasters affected an estimated 800,000 people, according to the United Nations.
“I have nothing in Haiti. No family left,” said Stervens Datus, a hunger striker who came to the U.S. from Haiti when he was 5 years old, in a statement. “The government has killed people in my family in the past, and the gangs there will kidnap you if they think you have relatives in the U.S. with money.”
On August 30, more than 300 human rights groups signed a letter to President Joe Biden urging his national security team to halt all ICE deportation flights to Haiti due to natural disasters, political violence and “crippling poverty” that is exacerbated by the pandemic. While the Biden administration announced in May that Haitians living in the U.S. can apply for new temporary immigration protections lasting 18 months, deportation flights from the U.S. to Haiti have continued despite the political and environmental disasters rocking that country.
In July, eight members of Congress led by Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security demanding that the Glades Country Detention Center be shut down. The lawmakers cited lawsuits and dozens of civil rights complaints filed by incarcerated migrants and immigrant rights groups against the facility:
These testimonies detail patterns of medical abuse; lack of soap, hygiene products, sanitation, and PPE; continued transfers between facilities without quarantine; failures to follow court orders to release individuals from Glades; retaliation for peaceful protest, including a pattern of off-camera physical assault; use of toxic chemical spray in enclosed spaces; and hospitalizations and death. Since February, additional CRCL complaints have been filed, demonstrating that conditions at Glades have not substantially improved.
ICE’s press office did not respond to questions submitted over email by the time this story was published.
Sofia Casini, the director of visitation and advocacy strategies at Freedom for Immigrants, said ICE has the discretion to release the hunger strikers and others held at the Glades jail to their families as they wait to resolve immigration cases. Many have medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID, but ICE routinely denies applications for release, claiming in boilerplate determinations that the incarcerated migrants are a flight risk or danger to the community. Under its contract with a local sheriff, ICE pays for 300 beds at the jail even when there are not enough people facing immigration charges to fill them, according to the letter from lawmakers.
“It’s a money-making machine … this is human trafficking, most people qualify for release,” Casini said in an interview.
Casini pointed to Ernst Francois, a Black Haitian man who has allegedly faced retaliation for participating in peaceful protests against conditions at the jail. Francois has been incarcerated by ICE for four years and has four young children waiting for him at home.
After participating in a hunger strike in February 2021 protesting medical neglect during a COVID outbreak, Casini said a sheriff’s deputy allegedly threatened to place a rope in Francois’s solitary confinement cell that could be used as a noose for suicide.
Fearing for his life, Francois was transferred to another facility for his protection before being returned to the Glades County Detention Center, according to Casini. He is currently on hunger strike and demanding to be released to his family.
“We are incredibly concerned by Ernest’s welfare and safety in solitary confinement as he undertakes this peaceful hunger strike,” Casini said.
In a statement, Francois said he “hasn’t done anything wrong for over 20 years,” but ICE continues to deny his requests for release while an immigration judge considers his case.
“I have four children in the US who are still young and are waiting for me,” Francois said. “I need to see them and be a father to them.”