POLITICS

Immigrant Detainee Hunger Strike Grows As Men Plead To Be Released

One of the men said he is afraid of being killed if he's deported.
Men at the Otay Mesa immigration detention center in San Diego are refusing food in protest of their prolonged detention
Men at the Otay Mesa immigration detention center in San Diego are refusing food in protest of their prolonged detention.

WASHINGTON -- Men in six immigrant detention centers have joined a hunger strike to demand they be released and granted asylum in the U.S. because they fear returning to their home countries, activists say.

The hunger strikes started on Wednesday in three detention facilities, and advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving, or DRUM, said Monday that men in three other facilities had begun refusing food as well. The number of men participating in what the organization calls the #FreedomGiving hunger strikes is now at more than 130, DRUM executive director Fahd Ahmed told The Huffington Post.

The group, which is working with the detainees, alleges that detention center staff members have retaliated against hunger strikers, including using verbal threats and placing eight protesters in solitary confinement for multiple days.

All of the men are seeking asylum in the U.S., and have been in detention for at least six months -- and sometimes as long as two years, Ahmed said. He added that most of the hunger strikers are South Asian.

Rumon Ahmed, a Bangladeshi man participating in the hunger strikes, told advocates in a recording DRUM provided to the HuffPost that he and the others "came to this country to save our lives." He said medical workers mistreated him during the hunger strike by putting in a catheter and taking his blood without his consent. 

"If we are returned, we will be killed," he said, as translated by HuffPost. "We came here to save our lives instead it has been complete self-destruction here. It has been five days and we haven't eaten anything."

An official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs detention, confirmed the hunger strikes at the three facilities where they began, but not at the three additional centers. According to the official, 94 individuals had stopped eating: 46 detainees at the Etowah Detention center, 35 detainees at Theo Lacy Immigration Detention Facility and another 13 detainees at Otay Mesa Detention Center.

The official said the agency cannot discuss specific cases because of privacy laws.

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said the agency "takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care and we continue to monitor the situation."

"ICE’s Etowah Detention Center, Theo Lacy Immigration Detention Facility and Otay Mesa Detention Center are staffed with medical and mental health care providers who monitor, diagnose and treat residents at the facility," he continued in an emailed statement. "ICE also uses outside, private medical/mental health care service providers as needed. Individuals at each ICE facility have access to meals served three times daily at the cafeteria, snacks provided by the facility, and/or food purchased from the commissary." 

Advocates said 13 men at the Denver Contract Detention Facility are participating in the hunger strike, as are nine at the Adelanto Detention Facility and 17 at the South Texas Detention Facility. 

Foreign nationals in the U.S., including those in deportation proceedings, can seek asylum to remain in the country if they are determined to have credible fear of returning to their home countries. If officials determine they do, the asylum-seekers in deportation proceedings can plead their case before a judge.

Fahd Ahmed said some of the men have pending asylum cases, while others were denied and have a pending appeal. Some others were unable to appeal, he said. It's difficult to find legal representation and build a case for asylum -- a process that involves gathering evidence -- while in detention, he said.

"They're being held in such isolated conditions where they're not only isolated from their families and communities, but also isolated from lawyers that can provide them quality representation," he said.

Other immigrants in detention have held hunger strikes as well, including women being held with their children, and some have similarly said they faced retaliation for doing so.  

Mugdha Mahalanabish contributed reporting.

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