On Jan. 29, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported to India an asylum-seeker who had spent nearly eight months in ICE detention. He was one of five asylum-seekers of South Asian origin who went on a hunger strike in October at the LaSalle Detention Center, an ICE processing facility in Jena, La, operated by the for-profit prison company GEO Group. All five had exercised their legal right to claim asylum, after escaping religious or political persecution.
My organization, Freedom for Immigrants, runs a national visitation network of more than 4,500 volunteers, who conduct weekly monitoring visits in immigrant jails and prisons throughout the country. One volunteer, who visits with two of the men detained weekly has reported that their condition is deteriorating: They are short of breath and have difficulty moving without assistance; their bones are visible, their skin tone grayish, their eyes hollow and their features sunken.
Despite legal avenues for release and the fact that all of the men have family or close friends willing to care for them upon release, they have been detained for more than a year in facilities with extensive and well-documented histories of abuse, including overcrowding, medical neglect, sexual assault, barriers to legal access and retaliatory use of solitary confinement. In a recent statement to volunteers, three of the detained men report that they have been held in solitary confinement, in apparent payback for their strike. All have said they will continue their hunger strike, even if it means death.
These men are not the only ones waging hunger strikes in immigrant jails and prisons in the United States. Over the last year, we and our partner groups have documented hunger strikes in ICE prisons in New Mexico, Louisiana and Texas, the majority of which have been waged by asylum-seekers. Detained immigrants have told volunteers that officials have responded with excessive use of force including pepper spray and solitary confinement.
At the LaSalle center, all the hunger strikers have received have received intravenous hydration at some points during their protest Three men, including the one who was deported this week, have been subjected to involuntary force-feeding through a nasogastric tube, a painful process in which a person is physically restrained and a rubber tube is pushed through the nose and down the throat. At least one has accepted dietary supplements out of fear that he too would be force-fed.
Force feeding and forced hydration have occurred at ICE prisons and jails elsewhere in the country, prompting 47 members of Congress to call a year ago for an investigation into the practice. Since then, though, ICE has continued to force-feed others on hunger strikes at various locations.
Force feeding has been denounced by the World Medical Association, World Health Organization, International Society of the Red Cross, American Medical Association, Physicians for Human Rights and the United Nations. Medical professionals at Physicians for Human Rights have expressed concern with ICE’s ability to appropriately monitor and treat medical complications that arise during prolonged hunger strikes.
For people in immigration detention, participation in a hunger strike is a last resort. Under the Trump administration, ICE detention has grown from a daily average of 34,376 in 2016 to more than 50,000 in 2019. To accommodate this growth, ICE needed to open new facilities, many of which are concentrated in the Southeast. Many of these centers are run by private prison companies that profit daily from people’s incarceration.
The percentage of those under the jurisdiction of ICE’s New Orleans Field Office who were granted parole plummeted from 75 percent in 2016 to 1.5 percent in 2018, which meant that a blanket parole denial policy had been imposed on detained asylum-seekers. In response to a class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in September 2019, ordering the field office restore asylum-seekers’ access to parole, in accordance with the Department of Homeland Security’s own Parole Directive. Despite this injunction, lawyers, advocates and family members continue to report a low rate of parole approvals from that office.
Those detained at the LaSalle facility, who are not subject to mandatory detention requirements, are eligible for release on bond. When bond is approved, the sum is often prohibitively high. One hunger striker told us that he did not believe it was possible to receive bond in Louisiana, even though he is eligible, because had never seen a single person released that way.
Asylum-seekers who are not granted bond or parole must remain in detention — cut off from their communities and support services — while their cases work their way through the court system. Given the backlog of cases in immigration court, the average asylum case now takes 578 days to complete. Louisiana judges have one of the lowest asylum approval rates in the country. For immigrants languishing in detention, particularly in the South, a hunger strike is often the sole remaining means of protest against a dehumanizing and unjust system.
As immigration detention continues to expand in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, more detained immigrants will find themselves facing indefinite incarceration and abuse in extreme isolation. Congress should call for an inquiry into retaliation against hunger strikers, blanket denials of bond and parole and questionably high rates of asylum denials in those places. The public should demand answers about the link between profit margins, the expansion of detention and prolonged incarceration.
We should all be asking ourselves how much longer we will accept a system of mass incarceration that forces people to choose between indefinite detention and death.
Sarah Gardiner is the director of policy at Freedom for Immigrants.
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