According to a report released on Thursday by the Associated Press, detained men in the El Paso Processing Center have been participating in a hunger strike since at least January. ICE officials said that 11 men are striking. However, the AP reported that nearly 30 men – mostly from India and Cuba – in the El Paso Processing Center are refusing food to protest prolonged detentions, as well as “rampant verbal abuse and threats of deportation from guards.”
Force-feeding – which involves pushing a feeding tube down a patient’s nose – can be very painful and is inherently cruel, inhuman, and degrading. Medical ethics and human rights norms generally prohibit the force feeding of detainees who are competent and capable of rational judgment as to the consequences of refusing food.
One detainee on a hunger strike detailed to the wire service the excruciating experience of guards dragging him from his cell and constraining him to force-feed him through a nasal tube.
“They tie us on the force-feeding bed, and then they put a lot of liquid into the tubes, and the pressure is immense so we end up vomiting it out,” the detainee, identified only by his surname, Singh, told the AP. “We can’t talk properly, and we can’t breathe properly. The pipe is not an easy process, but they try to push it down our noses and throats.”
The men with nasal tubes are having persistent nose bleeds, and are vomiting several times a day, said Amrit Singh, whose two nephews from the Indian state of Punjab have been on hunger strike for about a month.
“They are not well. Their bodies are really weak, they can’t talk and they have been hospitalized, back and forth,” said Singh, from California. “They want to know why they are still in the jail and want to get their rights and wake up the government immigration system.”
Singh’s nephews are both seeking asylum. Court records show they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in September after illegally walking across the border near El Paso.
In order for ICE to consider detainees to be a hunger strikers, they must miss nine consecutive meals.
In mid-January a federal judge authorized ICE to force-feed six of the protesters. An ICE official told AP that it is “exceedingly rare” for a judge to authorize force-feeding. Authorities call the force feedings, “non-consensual feedings.” The law allows a physician to order feeding without the inmate’s consent when “a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists.” ICE said a federal judge ordered the non-consensual feedings. Two of the El Paso hunger strikers stopped eating in late December.
The detained men have been protesting the alleged “rampant verbal abuse and threats of deportation from guards” and long detentions while awaiting a hearing. Most of the hunger strikers are from India or Cuba. The judge did not address the detainees’ allegations of abuse.
Although AP reported that the hunger strike began in January the strike has apparently been going on since November. Margaret Brown Vega, a volunteer with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention, a group that has visited four hunger strikers in ICE’s El Paso Processing Center, said she first became aware of hunger strike activity in November at the Otero County Processing Center, a privately run immigrant detention facility in southern New Mexico, just north of El Paso.
“We had kind of heard reports that there were some men from India that were on hunger strike, but we understand that it was pretty short-lived and that they were transferred to El Paso Processing Center sometime in November,” she said. “In probably the beginning of January, we started to hear reports from India that were on hunger strike at the El Paso processing center.”
She said some of the men had been detained as long as 18 months. “It’s amazing to me that ICE does detain people in these situations when there really is no reason to detain them at all. They should be released. The fact that they have to go to these lengths to be released, to say it’s unfortunate is an understatement.”
The hunger strikes are the latest effort aimed at curbing lengthening stays by asylum seekers in ICE detention facilities. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., last year ruled that ICE wasn’t following its own guidelines when deciding whether to grant humanitarian parole to asylum seekers detained at field offices in El Paso, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey. District Judge James Boasberg’s ruling came in a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that alleged that parole was granted in more than 90 percent of cases before Donald Trump became president and dropped to near zero after that, even though the policy guidelines didn’t change. Boasberg issued a preliminary injunction in July ordering ICE to follow its long-established procedures for deciding whether to grant parole.
People granted parole generally have family member sponsors who agree to make sure the asylum seeker appears for all immigration court cases. In a court filing in September, lawyers for ICE said that the number of parole requests granted had risen to 25 percent at the five field offices covered by the lawsuit. In October, ACLU lawyers alleged in a court filing that ICE was not complying with the judge’s order to follow its own parole guidelines. “The unexplained dramatic decline in parole-grant rates is evidence of contempt—not compliance,” they wrote. The lawsuit was delayed for several weeks by the partial government shutdown but is scheduled to resume next week.