Courtesy of Orange County Immigrant Youth United

Deyaneira García will graduate from high school in exactly four weeks. But right now she’s focused on her hunger strike.

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The 18-year-old senior at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana, California plans to survive her final month of classes on just vitamin-enhanced water. She says she's prepared to continue her hunger strike for “as long as it takes.”

García will be a student by day, and spend her nights camped out with two other activists near city hall. Other Senior Spring activities—including prom preparations—are on hold for the moment.

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García says she doesn’t have a prom dress, and isn't looking for one right now because she's not sure what physical shape she'll be in by prom night. “Prom is a month away so I'm not very worried [about it] right now. I'm just focused on getting through school for the remainder of the hunger strike,” she told me.

García, who last year came out as an undocumented Mexican immigrant, started her protest on Monday with two other activists who are trying to pressure city officials in Santa Ana to close a jail that's holding undocumented transgender women detained by immigration officials.

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The three hunger-strikers have pitched a tent to camp in the small park across from the building where the city council meets. García has arranged for transportation to shuttle her back and forth from the campsite to school every day.

The hunger-strikers say they've heard horror stories about the immigrant detention facility, and point to reports from human rights groups that call the conditions inside “humiliating” and “invasive.”

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García says whatever hunger pangs she feels during her protest "will not compare to the months of physical and emotional pain that transgender women have faced in detention centers.”

Joining García in protest are: Jorge Gutierrez, 32, a transgender immigrant rights advocate who founded Familia: TQLM; and Jennicet Gutiérrez, a transgender woman who last year interrupted President Obama at a White House event to urge him to release trans women from detention. The two Gutiérrez are unrelated.
Courtesy of Orange County Immigrant Youth United

The same three activists led a successful campaign in February that convinced the mayor and members of city council to not expand the city jail contract with ICE. But now the city manager is asking for that authorization again anyway.

“This is our last effort to try to get the city council to cancel the immigration contract,” said Jorge Gutierrez.

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The hunger-strikers cite a recent report by Human Rights Watch that found some transgender women held in Santa Ana were subjected to “invasive strip searches conducted by male guards.” The report also charges that the city offered “severely inadequate medical and mental health services to address [transgender detainees] unique needs.”

A Fusion investigation published in 2014 found that while transgender people account for only one of every 500 detainees, they represent one of every five victims of confirmed sexual assaults in detention.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials say the agency is committed to treating everyone in their custody in a safe and humane manner, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

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City officials would not comment on the hunger strike, but said that city council is scheduled to discuss contracts with ICE at a hearing this week.

The city of Santa Ana, 40 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, is part of a region in the U.S. that's home to the largest number of Mexican-born residents. Santa Ana itself is nearly 78% Latino, and has an all-Latino city council and mayor. Approximately 96% of the students who attend Santa Ana public schools are Latino, according to the school district. Close to 60% of district's students speak English as a second language.

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Santa Ana city officials have acknowledged that they don’t want to be “in the business” of incarcerating people, but the federal contracts bring needed money into the city.

“I don’t believe that we should be in the jail business, I’ve said that since day one…Unfortunately, we have a $27 million debt that we need to pay,” City Manager David Cavazos said during a city council meeting in February.

The activists launched their hunger strike less than a week after Reuters reported U.S. immigration officials were planning a “month-long series of raids in May and June to deport hundreds of Central American mothers and children.”

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“I’m willing to put my body out on the line in Santa Ana to protect our communities and families, this is part of a national fight to stop the raids, deportations and close down detention centers,” said Jorge Gutierrez.

For García, the issue of deportation is personal. Her older brother was deported from the U.S. six years ago. Now she'll be the first in her family to attend college when she heads to Indiana to study political science next year. She hopes to become an immigration lawyer one day.

“It's about time people start realizing the power our youth hold within," García told Fusion.