More than 40 Cameroonian women—all of them asylum-seekers—were transferred more than 200 miles away because they protested conditions at the facility where they were being detained.

The T. Don Hutto Residential Center is a detention center in Taylor, Texas, that has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses, including medical neglect. The facility detains roughly 500 asylum-seeking women. The Austin, Texas-based organization Grassroots Leadership has a visitation program inside Hutto, which gives organizers like Bethany Carson a direct line to women detained at the facility.  

According to Carson, women inside the facility reported to Grassroots Leadership that there are “more than 300 women from Cameroon” detained at Hutto, marking a rapid demographic shift for the facility, which previously primarily detained Central American women. Detained women told Carson that on Feb. 24, a large group of Cameroonian women performed a sit-in in front of Hutto’s medical clinic to protest the conditions in which they are being held, which include prolonged detention and a lack of medical services.  

After the protest, the women reported to Carson that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CoreCivic, the private prison company contracted to run the facility, shut down legal services and community visitation “at least for a day.”

“Soon after the protest, we heard that ICE was threatening to transfer all of the women who participated in the protest and ultimately, we learned that ICE transferred 47 Cameroonian women to the Laredo Detention Center [on February 27]. We don’t know how many women protested, but the large number who were transferred is probably indicative of how big this protest was,” Carson said.

In a statement to Prism, ICE confirmed the protest and the transfer of a large group of women more than four hours away.

“On February 24, approximately 80 detainees participated in an impromptu ‘sit down’ protest at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. The detainees told facility staff they would continue their protest until they were released from custody; however, those actions compromised security protocols at the facility and blocked access to services including visitation, court and the dining area,” according to the statement from ICE.

“Staff at the facility informed detainees that those who did not comply with requests to discontinue blocking critical pathways may be transferred. While others returned to their daily activities, 47 detainees still refused to comply, and ICE ultimately transferred them to the Laredo Detention Center.” 

ICE would not comment on whether transfers to other facilities are a disciplinary tactic used by the agency. Advocates have long alleged that ICE transfers detained people from detention centers in “retaliation” for speaking out, removing them from existing legal networks and any community they have formed in detention.

“This is retaliation, and I have concerns for the women transferred out and the women left behind,” Carson said. “We have now lost contact with the women who were transferred and the women left behind may interpret these transfers as deportations, which stokes fear. Deportation officers often trick people into believing they have zero ability to win their case and convince people to give up. All of this sends the message that ICE and CoreCivic are allowed to trample on people’s rights with no accountability.”

This was echoed by Deborah Alemu, a Texas-based organizer who works with Black-led immigrants’ rights organizations.

“ICE retaliates any time immigrants demand that their humanity be seen. Their intimidating tactics are so insidious because ICE has control over the mental, physical, spiritual, and intellectual well-being of each of these women,” Alemu said. “ICE has a 17-year record of leveraging its power over immigrants, but [because] ICE can’t make any final judgements on the outcome of someone’s case, they employ tactics like transferring people just to keep them far away from legal support, family, sponsors, and community.”

Prior to the Feb. 24 protest, Carson learned that tensions were growing inside the facility because women detained at Hutto were being subjected to prolonged detention, meaning they were being detained indefinitely. For at least six months, Carson said, all of the women in the facility have been denied parole or bond. Those who “crossed the river” into the U.S. without authorization have been able to appeal the denials to judges who then require an exorbitant bond—sometimes as high as $25,000 or more—in exchange for release, Carson said. But for Cameroonian asylum seekers who entered the U.S. through a port of entry, there has been no appeal process granted.

“They’re basically stuck in detention for the duration of their asylum case,” Carson said. “It’s hard to say why exactly this is happening, but it’s forcing them to wait in detention for months and months because their court dates are set so far in the future. They’re watching all of their friends lose their cases because they don’t have legal representation and because of all the other barriers they experience navigating a new legal system in a new country while confined and having little communication with the outside world.”

According to data from the United Nations refugee agency, there was a 56% increase in the number of people from Cameroon seeking asylum in the U.S. between 2014 and 2016. Since 2016, around 10,000 Cameroonians have fled to seek asylum in the U.S., the Intercept reported. What owes to this increase?

Since 2016, the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon have been in turmoil after the Francophone central government, backed by the U.S., “violently suppressed a series of peaceful protests against the marginalization of the English-speaking minority—about 20 percent of the overall population,” Pacific Standard reported. The crackdown “[set] off an armed conflict with separatist groups that has displaced at least half a million people and caused tens of thousands to seek refuge in other countries,” according to the Intercept.

It is this English-speaking minority facing intense government oppression that is requesting asylum in the United States, meaning that the women being funneled into Hutto have strong asylum cases because of the persecution they face in Cameroon. But they are still being subjected to prolonged detention and denied asylum because in many instances, they can’t find legal help despite being English speakers.

Cameroonian asylum-seeker Felicia Ngum spoke to Prism using a pseudonym because she is currently facing deportation and fears for her safety. Last month near her family’s village, Ngum said there was a massacre and authorities killed 51 people. Just a few days ago, she said her uncle in Cameroon was asked by officials to sing the national anthem in French and English. When he couldn’t sing the anthem in French, Ngum said they beat him until he was unconscious and left him for dead.

“The government has been sending the military to kill us. [They’re] carrying out genocide— killing the old, the young, and even babies,”  Ngum said, noting that her parents are afraid to leave their home because of all the killings that have occurred. “The situation is really bad.”

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) was just recently alerted to the high number of Cameroonian women being detained at Hutto and the conditions they are facing. BAJI’s executive director, Nana Gyamfi, said that the reasons why the asylum seekers are protesting are clear.

“Our Cameroonian sisters are clear that the conditions that they are facing constitute torture because detention is torture,” Gyamfi said. “The U.S. is caging Black and brown human beings because they dare to seek refuge here. These women fled persecution in their own country only to be persecuted in the country that purports to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.