In the last week of March, dozens of asylum-seekers held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., initiated a hunger strike. Activists said 150 people joined the demonstration, while ICE put the number at 24.
It was a short-lived demonstration, ending on March 30, according to ICE. But it was at least the sixth hunger strike at a detention center in the first three months of 2019 alone.
"We have never seen so many hunger strikes in so many different places in less than three, four months," said Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigrants rights activist based in Washington state. "And the ones we have been able to engage with have been led by asylum-seekers."
For several of the hunger strikes, the detainees' central demand was to be released while their cases were adjudicated, a process that can take years. That was the first demand of the River Correctional strike, as well as the 77-day hunger strike that occurred at the El Paso Processing Center. That demonstration made national headlines when ICE agents began force-feeding detainees. A judge eventually ordered the agents to stop.
Asylum-seekers have two ways to escape detention while their cases are still being reviewed: bond or parole. The use of bonds in immigration court increased in the final years of the Obama administration, a trend that has been reversed under President Trump. And parole — a type of release granted to asylum-seekers who are found to have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries — has nearly disappeared altogether, immigration advocates and attorneys say.
"The way the system is operating right now, especially in Louisiana, is a farce," said the wife of one of the hunger strikers at River Correctional. For fear of retribution from ICE agents, she asked to be identified only as "Dee," an abbreviation of her first name. She also asked that her husband's name not be included for fear it would interfere with his asylum case.
The pair are from Cuba and fled last year after they say they were imprisoned and tortured for their political beliefs.
"To feel that there is no hope, I think that's been the hardest thing for him," Dee said of her husband. "He's been through worse, but the mental, psychological feeling that you are going to come to a refuge and instead find a prison, that's what is really the hardest thing."
Trump has taken a firm stance on immigration, including those seeking asylum, vowing to keep asylum-seekers in detention or force them to stay outside the United States while their claims are being considered.
"We're going to catch, we're not going to release," he said at a news conference in November. "They're going to stay with us until the deportation hearing or the asylum hearing takes place. ... And they await a lengthy court process. The court process will take years sometimes for them to attend. Well, we're not releasing them into our country any longer. They'll wait."
Trump has provided two primary reasons for the new approach. First, he says that asylum seekers who are released don't return for their court hearings, stating that as few as 3% will appear in court. But according to a 2017 Department of Justice report, 89% of asylum-seekers appeared at a hearing at which a decision on their case was made.
The other major justification provided by the Trump administration is that the asylum system is a loophole for immigrants who are not in danger, but rather looking for an easier path into the country.
"You do not subject yourself to a year of detention, even just six months of detention, let alone five years of detention, if you don't have a credible claim," said Jeremy Jong, a Louisiana-based immigration attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Dee pointed to the conditions that she and her husband have faced. She said they didn't have adequate food or clothing, and that her husband was put in solitary confinement after the hunger strike as retribution for his political activity.
"In general, ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference," ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in an email. "ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers."
Dee said that what made things worse is that a private company was making money from her husband's suffering.
"This immigrations system has become so lucrative," she said. "This whole system is for profit."
River Correctional, a private prison owned by Ruston-based LaSalle Corrections, has held immigration detainees since late last year, according to Cox.
"We don't do that here anymore"
Between 2009 and 2014, the first six years of the Obama administration, immigration courts denied bonds between 51% and 60% of the time, according to data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That changed in 2015 and 2016. In the administration's final two years, denials dipped to 44%.
Since Trump took office, those denials have increased again, to 52% in 2018. Louisiana's immigration courts are even more tightfisted, with a denial rate of 61% in 2018, compared to 41% in 2016.
"The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) does not comment on third-party reporting of EOIR data," said Amanda St. Jean, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review. "Please note that an immigration judge renders decisions on bond on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant factors."
Villalpando said that while human rights violations in the immigration system have grown faster under Trump, many of these issues are not new.
"Obama left an incredible huge machine of detention and deportation to an administration with no shame," she said.
Even with the growing rate of denial, some asylum-seekers aren't eligible for bond at all.
Asylum-seekers who come to the country outside of a port of entry and are caught by Border Patrol agents after already entering the U.S. were eligible for bond. Bond can be granted either by ICE or an immigration judge. Though earlier this week, Attorney General William Barr ordered immigration judges to stop releasing some detained asylum-seekers on bail. The order does not apply to family units or unaccompanied minors.
Even before Barr's decision, migrants who surrendered at a legal port of entry weren't eligible for bail. Their only option is parole, which can be granted only by ICE and has changed even more dramatically than bail.
In 2018, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against officials from ICE and Homeland Security, arguing that ICE was violating its own policy by issuing blanket denials to parole.
The ACLU lawsuit claims that ICE is in violation of its own policy — the 2009 Parole Directive, which says that asylum-seekers should be released on parole if they're found to have a credible fear, established their identity and do not present either a flight risk or a danger to the community. The plaintiffs in the ongoing case looked at how parole was treated at five different ICE field offices.
Between 2011 and 2013, those field offices granted parole to 92% of arriving asylum-seekers, according to the lawsuit. In 2017, from February through September, that number fell to just 4%.
Activists say that although the ACLU suit focused on those five offices, the change isn't limited to those regions. The New Orleans field office, for example, was not included in that assessment. But Jong said he witnessed a similar phenomena.
"I would say that in cases that I had, granting of parole was the rule rather than the exception for folks who had turned themselves in at a port of entry," he said. "Essentially after the new administration took office, the parole grant rate has dropped off of a cliff. ... I've literally heard of it happening once in the last two years."
He recalled a case from 2018 in which he was trying to get parole for one of his clients.
"When we submitted the parole request to the deportation officer, the deportation officer laughed and said, 'Parole? We don't do that here anymore.' "
Cox, the ICE spokesman, pointed to the Trump administration's rollback of the 2014 Department of Homeland Security Immigration Enforcement Priorities policy as a potential explanation for the change in parole. The former policy shifted Homeland Security's focus to immigrants who posed national security and public safety risks, rather than those with no criminal records or minor ones.
"The current administration repealed that document and no longer exempts classes or categories of persons from enforcement of federal law," Cox said.
"We abided by the law"
In December, Dee and her husband crossed into the U.S. at a legal port of entry.
After leaving Cuba, they traveled to Mexicali — a Mexican city on the California border — where they had to wait a month before being allowed through, Dee said. The Trump administration put a "metering" system in place last year, limiting the daily number of people crossing through legal ports of entry and forcing many asylum-seekers to wait for months until their number is called.
"We abided by the law that Donald Trump laid out," Dee said. "In order to claim asylum, you're supposed to do that at a port of entry at the border. We waited for one month in Mexicali. We hardly had anything to survive there; we hadn't brought anything with us."
The couple turned themselves in to officials and requested asylum. They were both put into detention. Dee was in a California detention center for two months before being granted parole, she said. Her husband was shuffled between several different centers before landing in Ferriday in February, according to Dee.
Dee said she has been frustrated that even after following what she thought was the appropriate protocol, she's still being punished. Villalpando wasn't surprised and said that the country's immigration laws are unfairly opaque and constantly shifting.
"This is not a fair system to fight your case," Villalpando said. "It's a system to ensure you will be in detention the longest time possible."
This is their only option
While the likelihood of being released on bond or parole is falling, so are the chances that asylum will ultimately be granted. In 2012, only 42% of asylum applications were denied. Last year, that number was 65%.
Between 2013 and 2018, the New Orleans immigration court denied 80% of asylum applications. The second Louisiana immigration court in Oakdale denied 90%. One of the judges at the Oakdale Court, Judge Agnelis L. Reese, has denied every single asylum application she has ruled on for the past seven years. The third Louisiana immigration court, in Jena, opened in July, so data aren't yet available.
"For so many of these people this is their only option; they can't go back," Jong said. "They'll ask, 'What are my chances?' and you have to be honest with them and tell them, 'Look, nobody has ever won an asylum case in front of this person, so your chances aren't good.' And they'll say, 'Well. I'm going to die.' "
"What are you supposed to say to that?" Jong asked. "The abject sense of injustice, of hopelessness, is really palpable in those conversations."
Villalpando said that if the Trump administration's goal was to make some asylum-seekers give up hope, he's partially succeeded. But, she said, there are many who remain determined.
"It's just such an inhumane and constant violation of human dignity in detention," she said. "Yet, we see the hunger strikes. That's the most important part of any discussion that although the vast majority of people might not end up winning their cases or even to be able to fight their cases, there will always be a number of people who will remain strong and try to keep their dignity intact and will try to expose the system as it is."
Dee said she counts herself and her husband among that group. She said she still believes he will be released. In the meantime, she said she will continue to speak out against the judges and ICE officials keeping her husband in detention.
"They're animals," she said.