At a Monday morning press conference in front of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Los Angeles field office, organizers from the Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC), California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement announced a “solidarity hunger strike” to demand the release of Venecia, Olivia, and Christina, three undocumented women and survivors of domestic violence currently detained in California.
The press conference jumpstarted a week of action by immigrant rights groups. More than two dozen events are being held across 17 different states in protest against, according to a statement from the immigrant advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership, “the unjust enforcement and deportations that have continued in the year since the President’s immigration announcement.”
Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) was supposed to take effect in February, but an injunction granted by a federal judge in Texas put the measure on hold nationwide. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the Texas court ruling, and the Department of Justice swiftly announced it would ask the Supreme Court to take up the case.
An estimated five million undocumented immigrants qualify for DAPA, but as the injunction remains in place, this affected population continues to be detained and deported. In an interview with Rewire before the week of action, an IYC organizer, Aiko, said the solidarity hunger strike was designed to serve as a reminder to both the Obama administration and lawmakers that no one is benefitting from DAPA.
“It’s been a year since the executive order for DAPA was announced and so far, we have seen no impact on our community,” Aiko said. “This week of action is about sending a message: Our families are still suffering, they’re still being torn apart [by deportation], and people who could have been safe are being deported. The hunger strike also sends a reminder that we will keep fighting until women like Olivia, Venecia, and Christina are liberated.”
Advocates at the event shared their stories, which illustrate how immigration policies primarily affect women and in the case of Christina, make an already vulnerable population—undocumented transgender women—susceptible to further violence and abuse.
Olivia and Venecia are both detained in California’s Adelanto Detention Facility and have joined the 26 asylum seekers currently on hunger strike demanding immediate release as their asylum cases are pending. Both women qualify for U visas, which according to USCIS, are set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and have agreed to help law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.
Olivia, a mother of four, fled familial violence in Mexico when she was 16. In the United States, Olivia cooperated with authorities in reporting the violence she experienced from an abusive partner, making her a U visa candidate. She was arrested last November for child aggravation after an incident with her autistic son. Her four children were placed in foster care as she served time in Tehama County Jail. Released early for good conduct, she was detained three hours after her release by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and has been in detention ever since. Olivia’s sisters, who are also undocumented, cannot raise or visit their nieces and nephews because of their immigration status.
When Aiko visited Venecia two weeks ago, Venecia said that she could be deported any day now.
Venecia, a mother and grandmother from the Dominican Republic, spent three years at Yuba County Jail before being transferred to Adelanto with Olivia. Both women were originally sent to the Santa Ana City Jail in California, but when there were no beds available, they were sent to Adelanto. Olivia, Venecia, and other women being transferred were left overnight in an unventilated van where one woman passed out, according to Aiko.
A domestic violence survivor, Venecia has received a diagnosis of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She cooperated with the police during the investigation of her daughter’s stabbing, making her a U visa candidate. According to USCIS, asylum officers conduct a credible fear of persecution or torture interview when a detainee expresses a fear of persecution or torture or expresses a fear of returning their country of origin. IYC reports that Venecia has already passed her credible fear interview, but remains in detention.
Christina is a transgender woman from Peru who has been detained at Santa Ana City Jail for a year and a half. She is a domestic violence survivor and the primary caretaker of her autistic brother. Christina has hepatitis C and according to organizers with Familia, she is being denied medication and proper medical treatment in detention.
At Monday’s press conference, an organizer from Familia reported that the Santa Ana City Jail does not prioritize protecting transgender detainees and Christina experienced abuse from both other detainees and guards while being held in the LGBT wing of the jail. As a result, she has been in solitary confinement for the past three months.
Jorge Gutierrez, an undocumented and queer activist and the founder and national coordinator of Familia, said at Monday’s press conference that the undocumented LGBT community is hit hard by immigration policies and that the week-long actions are for all undocumented communities, including the many transgender people currently detained in detention centers across the United States.
“We want justice,” Gutierrez said. “We will not stop until ICE stops terrorizing, persecuting, and deporting our people.”