Dozens of detainees held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claim they were subjected to sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and other forms of retaliation after they went on hunger strike last month to protest the rejection of their asylum claims and their prolonged imprisonment.
The hunger strikes, which began in late November the night before Thanksgiving, eventually spread to at least 10 facilities across the country and involved more than 100 detainees, according to advocates. As of December 18, the hunger strike was still ongoing at the Krome detention center in Miami. Women incarcerated at the Yuba County Jail in California also began refusing food last Monday in solidarity with the immigrant detainees.
Paromita Shah, the associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, said some of the hunger strikers have spent more than two years behind bars waiting for their cases to be resolved. She said most of the participants were asylum seekers who passed their "credible fear" screenings — meaning they expressed a fear of being persecuted or tortured in their home countries, and had their cases referred to a judge for a full hearing — and were supposed to be considered for parole.
Almost all of participants claim they were isolated from other detainees, and others were allegedly placed in solitary confinement. In two facilities, hunger strikers reported being severely sleep deprived, with guards waking them up every fifteen minutes. In at least three facilities, detainees were allegedly prevented from calling outside supporters to update them about the protest.
ICE also successfully requested authorization from a federal judge to force-feed one individual, though the agency never followed through on the order. Activists also claim that one hunger striker at the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama was forcibly catheterized, meaning he had a thin tube inserted into his bladder through his urethra, ostensibly for medical reasons.
ICE adamantly denied retaliating against the hunger strikers.
"US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care and we continue to monitor the situation," ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias said in an email to VICE News, adding that the facilities where the hunger strikers are being held are staffed with "medical and mental health care providers who monitor, diagnose and treat residents."
But this isn't the first time that ICE has been accused of using draconian measures to crack down on hunger strikers. During a hunger strike last year at the Northwest Detention Center in Washington state, detainees reported being placed in solitary confinement, prompting the ACLU of Washington to file a lawsuit on their behalf.
Alina Das, co-director of the immigrant rights clinic the New York University School of Law, said hunger strikers are exercising their First Amendment rights. "Using tactics like solitary confinement and force-feeding to end hunger strikes of this nature would violate immigrants' constitutional rights, as well as international law," she said.
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Federal judges and circuit courts have consistently ruled, however, that force-feedings are permissible, and determined that prisoners do not have the right to engage in hunger strikes, even if they are refusing to eat for political or religious reasons.
Many of the detainees involved in the latest hunger strike are Bangladeshis who support the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which the Department of Homeland Security recently categorized as a "Tier III" terrorist organization, a label that the US government says is "relatively broad and may apply to individuals and activities not commonly thought to be associated with terrorism."
Immigrant rights advocates have vehemently contested the move, arguing that BNP members face "extra-judicial arrests and killings" by the country's ruling government, and that they are "particularly vulnerable to persecution and may be in dire need of asylum." The terrorist classification means BNP supporters are regularly denied bond while their asylum applications are processed.
Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York-based organization that advocates on behalf of South Asian immigrants, told VICE News that ICE tries to limit communication between hunger strikers and their supporters in order to minimize the impact of the protest.
"We know that some of these folks have gone on hunger strike before, but nobody in the world knew about it," he said. "That's very intentional about the way that our detention centers and prison systems are set up, that people are completely isolated."
Ahmed also claimed that hunger strikers at the Theo Lacey Facility in California only agreed to start eating after they met with an ICE official who promised that they would be released within two weeks. ICE has denied negotiating with detainees to end their hunger strikes.
Despite ICE's alleged efforts to thwart communication between hunger strikers and the outside world, the protest has attracted significant media attention and prompted two of the main Democratic presidential candidates to weigh in.
'Using tactics like solitary confinement and force-feeding to end hunger strikes of this nature would violate immigrants' constitutional rights, as well as international law.'
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders met with a group of undocumented immigrants last week, including one former hunger striker who has since been released. Sanders promised to call ICE to inquire about hunger strikers who were facing imminent deportation, and to visit the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama once his schedule allows.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley met with former hunger strikers and their family members on Tuesday morning, and called for an end to the "the shameful practice of mass immigrant detention centers in our country."
Activists also protested outside of Hillary Clinton's campaign headquarters last week, demanding that she support the hunger strikers. Clinton's address to the National Immigrant Integration Conference on Monday was interrupted three times by supporters of the hunger strikers, who carried signs that said "Do you stand with us?" and "People are starving for their freedom."
On Wednesday, despite the attention from the Democratic presidential candidates, ICE deported Md. Tarek Ahmed, one of the hunger strike leaders. Supporters believe he faces imminent danger in Bangladesh.
"The candidates who say they support us should use their position to pressure ICE to halt deportations and release asylum seekers," Mohammed Aminul Islam, a former detainee who met with O'Malley, said in a statement to reporters. "Some of us will be deported and dead by the time the candidates act on their promises."
Follow Aviva Stahl on Twitter: @stahlidarity
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