While most Americans sit down with friends and family to feast on Thanksgiving, more than 100 people held at immigration detention centers in Alabama and California are refusing their meals, demanding an end to their indefinite confinement and improved conditions on the inside.
The hunger strikes started on Wednesday are ongoing at three immigration detention facilities: Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, Theo Lacey Facility in Orange County, California, and Otay Detention Facility in San Diego. Around 110 detainees, most of whom are Bangladeshi, are believed to be refusing meals. The hunger strikers also include detainees from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Togo, and elsewhere.
Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York-based organization that advocates on behalf of South Asian immigrants, explained on Thursday that the detainees are calling for an end to all detention and deportation, as well as the abolition of the so-called "bed quota," which requires immigration authorities to hold an average of 34,000 people in detention on any given day.
All of the hunger strikers are said to be asylum seekers that have passed the "credible fear" stage of the asylum review process, although some have since had their claims denied. According to a 2010 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy, asylum seekers with credible fear findings are supposed to be automatically considered for parole from detention. Some of the hunger strikers have been held for two years.
The lengthy stays are partially explained by the fact that many of the hunger strikers support the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country's second largest political group. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently decided that the BNP qualifies as an undesignated "Tier III" terrorist organization. Immigrant rights advocates have heavily contested the move on the grounds that it makes BNP supporters ineligible for asylum, and leads DHS to "regularly" deny bond to Bangladeshi BNP members.
Activists also say the DHS policy endangers a group of migrants especially at risk of government repression back at home. In recent years, Bangladesh's ruling Awami League has faced accusations of "extra-judicial killings, 'enforced disappearances,' mass arrests of opposition activists and Islamists, and restrictions and media and internet freedoms."
Human rights lawyer Chaumtoli Huq stressed on Thursday that Awami League opponents face persecution if they are deported to Bangladesh. "If returned, they'd face serious and severe harm to themselves," Huq said.
The latest hunger strike was preceded by a similar action in October, when dozens of immigrant detainees in El Paso and Louisiana's La Salle facility refused meals for about a week a half. Former El Paso hunger striker Kamran Ahmed said on Thursday that ICE has mischaracterized his political views in relation to the BNP. "We don't know why they call us terrorists," he said.
The October hunger strike in El Paso reportedly ended after participants were pressured into eating by the Bangladeshi Consular Minister, who was brought into the facility by ICE. In a press release issued the day after the Consular Minister's visit, DRUM accused ICE of violating federal law and said the tactic "further endangers lives by exposing asylum seekers to representatives of the very same government they are seeking asylum from."
In addition to ending indefinite detention and the ICE bed quota, the latest hunger strikers are also calling for better conditions, including access to better health care, clean clothes and unspoiled food, and a less repressive disciplinary regime. According to a 2013 report by Detention Watch Network, the conditions at Etowah County Detention Center, where about 48 people are on hunger strike, "are among the worst in country."
"Many of us even attempted to commit suicide for fearing of the government retribution if deported," an asylum-seeker named Mahbubur who is being held at Etowah was quoted as saying in press releaseabout the hunger strike. "We appeal to the Department of Homeland Security and the government of the United Stated of America to consider our case on humanitarian ground and free us from this miserable detention."
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