HACKENSACK, N.J. — At least eight immigrants being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Bergen County Jail in New Jersey are participating in a hunger strike to protest conditions at the facility and demand to be released.
Local activists say the hunger strike is in its 18th day. ICE would not comment on how long the immigrants have stopped eating.
Family members and activists who have spoken to detainees say conditions inside the facility are “dire.”
Gabriela Pucha, a 24-year-old New Jersey resident who was among more than a dozen protesters gathered outside the jail on a cold and cloudy Tuesday, said she has been in touch with two current detainees who described having the heat turned off, unsanitary conditions and being denied medical attention.
“We’re here in support of the hunger strikers,” said Pucha, who wore a gray raincoat and held a sign that read “detention is torture.”
An ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations spokesperson from the Newark field office told HuffPost that “accusations of unsanitary conditions are false,” but offered no additional details.
Cars that drove by honked their horns in support of the protesters and detainees. One police officer watched the protesters from his vehicle and rarely engaged with them. The wind blew harder on this wintry December day as the temperature dropped to the low 40s, but the protesters remained undeterred.
This is the second hunger strike at Bergen County Jail since the beginning of November, when detainee Marcial Morales Garcia began refusing meals after he was initially denied release despite serious medical conditions that put him at high risk for COVID-19. He was later released. Several detainees currently being held at the facility have preexisting conditions and also fear a coronavirus outbreak.
Garcia, who spoke a protest on Friday, told demonstrators he lacked drinkable water and had to drink toilet water instead, according to a press release from the Abolish ICE NY-NJ coalition. He also described a rat infestation and mold on the walls.
More than 5,000 detainees have contracted the coronavirus while being held in immigration detention centers around the country, according to immigration officials. Although ICE officials said the agency has taken precautions to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, activists say it’s not enough and that tight spaces such as detention centers and jails like the one in Bergen County are particularly vulnerable and can face a deadly outbreak at any moment.
Although Bergen County Jail hasn’t had any outbreaks, Andrea, a 33-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, worries for her brother who has been held there since November 2019. Andrea, whom HuffPost has given an alias because she fears retaliation by immigration officials, calls her brother three times a day. She is worried about him contracting the virus and says he’s vulnerable because he has asthma and a previous head injury.
She told HuffPost through a translator on the phone that her brother has been denied drinking water and resorts to drinking out of the toilet. He also told her that the heat has been shut off and the conditions have been extremely cold lately. She also said the officials took away the detainees’ commissary.
An ICE-ERO spokesperson called those allegations false.
Andrea said her brother decided to participate in the hunger strike because he saw no changes to his case and the conditions of the facility. He hasn’t eaten for 18 days.
She is currently caring for her brother’s 7-year-old son. She said she and her family came to the U.S. for a better life and to be with her brother. If he is deported, they would be separated again and his son would be without a father.
“He wants to be free, even with an ankle shackle. He wants to be with his son. He wants to work. He isn’t a thief. He doesn’t have any charges. I don’t know why immigration won’t free him,” she added.
More than 200 immigrants, mainly from Mexico and Central America, are being held at the Bergen County Correctional Facility, where most of the residents are waiting for deportation hearings.
Bergen County is one of several New Jersey counties that have multimillion-dollar contracts with ICE to house thousands of immigrants. From January 2015 to March 2018, ICE sent more than $150 million to Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties in the northern part of the state.
Those three counties are all controlled by Democrats, leaving some activists pessimistic that a Biden presidency will result in significant immigration reforms.
“We want nothing less than a full abolition of ICE and all oppressive systems,” 19-year-old Buzz Issac told HuffPost. “We recognize that this protest is not going to do that on its own. No single action is going to do that, so we are trying to embrace a diversity of tactics, and we’re using this as just mainly a way to show that we’re here.”
The protests, which began the day after Thanksgiving, are planned to continue until this Friday. Protesters on Tuesday were heard chanting “Abolish ICE,” and carried signs that read “free them all.”
At one point, the protesters moved to stand in front of the building that housed the detainees. Facing the windows, they chanted, “We are here for you.”
One police officer told the protesters that they were not allowed to talk directly to the detainees ― as indicated on a sign hung on the metal fence separating the facility and the protesters.
The protesters carried on anyway.