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After 68 Days, Hunger Strikers in ICE Custody Are on the Brink of Death

Hunger strikes have erupted at immigration jails nationwide in recent years.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at New York's Grand Central Station on August 29, 2019, to denounce the Trump administration's immigrant detention and deportation policies.

New Orleans — With hunger strikes sweeping immigration jails across the country, two Indian asylum seekers protesting their incarceration at a remote Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail in Louisiana are reportedly on the brink of death after refusing to eat or drink for 68 days, according to a volunteer who regularly visits the two men.

The hunger strikers have a clear demand: to be released so they can pursue their asylum cases outside of jail.

Medical staff at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center are force-hydrating both men, a painful and disturbing process that involves restraining the striker and forcing fluid through nasal passages with tubes, according to Michelle Graffeo, a volunteer with Freedom for Immigrants. Mr. Singh, whose name has been changed to protect his identify, described the forced-hydration process as terrifying and confusing because jail staff do not speak his native language, and videotaped the procedure.

“It’s a really scary process,” Graffeo said in an interview.

Both men fear they will face violence if they are deported to India and asked volunteers to keep their names out of the press. One is 37 years old and the other is 22, and both filed asylum claims after crossing at a legal port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border before being shuffled through the nation’s vast immigration detention system.

Graffeo said the two men can no longer walk and are in wheelchairs. They could suffer organ damage or even death within a week, as many hunger strikers do not make it past 75 days.

“It’s a rapid decline at this point,” Graffeo said.

Three other men at the facility are also on strike but recently began drinking some fluids, and all five have been subjected to forced hydration over the past month after refusing to eat and drink, according to Freedom for Immigrants.

Hunger strikes have erupted at immigration jails nationwide as the Trump administration responded to an influx of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border with policies that prioritize incarceration, with many adults held indefinitely as they wait to see a judge. Last year, immigrant rights groups documented 14 hunger strikes at immigration jails across the country. Strikers typically protest poor conditions and medical treatment and demand their right to freedom and due process. Freedom for Immigrants has identified 1,600 hunger strikers in immigration jails since 2015.

“The reason for me sitting on hunger strike is because I want freedom,” Mr. Singh wrote in a statement and said he began his hunger strike on November 1. “Since January 21, 2019, I have been locked inside four walls. For about a year I have been living my life inside suffocating. In my whole life I have not lived inside four walls like this.”

In 2016 — the last year of the Obama administration — immigration judges in Louisiana approved the release of nearly 60 percent of jailed immigration defendants on bond, but that number has steadily decreased, and dropped to 27 percent in 2019, according to data obtained from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) named LaSalle, where the two men have been on hunger strike for 68 days, in a class-action lawsuit against ICE and the Trump administration. SPLC alleged that immigrants at isolated, privately run jails were systematically denied proper access to legal representation. Immigration defendants with legal representation are more likely to be released on bond and are 10.5 times more likely to win their cases than those without a lawyer, the group argued in its complaint.

The United States’s system for incarcerating immigrants has grown steadily over the past three decades and is now the largest in the world. Comprehensive immigration reform remains elusive in Congress, and the number of migrants and asylum seekers held in immigration jails and border holding pens has swelled under the Trump administration’s brutal immigration crackdown. The Trump administration has forced other asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, where they live in squalid camps and face frequent harassment from gangs and the police.

At the ICE field office in New Orleans, the agency’s regional headquarters, the number of people released after being arrested by ICE agents dropped from nearly 76 percent in 2016 — the last year of the Obama administration — to 1.5 percent in 2018, according to the SPLC. Meanwhile, a number of local and privately run jails in Louisiana have signed lucrative contracts with ICE to incarcerate people awaiting immigration hearings as detention has rapidly expanded under the Trump administration. Many asylum seekers jailed in Louisiana were detained at the southern border and transferred from others states.

“People need to remember these are people who came in from legal ports of entry,” said Graffeo, who regularly drives three hours to visit the hunger strikers at the remote jail. “They claimed asylum, their claims are legal, but during this administration nothing has been consistent. I mean, policy changes by tweet.”

Graffeo said both men in deteriorating condition at LaSalle appear to have legitimate asylum claims, with documentation to back them up. One was violently attacked after converting to Christianity. The other was attacked and beaten by members of a rival political party. He told Graffeo that he would be a “dead man” if he was deported to India, so he might as well take his chances at LaSalle, even if the hunger strike kills him.

Advocates say forced medical treatment of hunger strikers has become more common in ICE jails, particularly at the El Paso Processing Center in El Paso, Texas. Last year, 16 men on prolonged hunger strike were force-fed at the El Paso facility, according to the local chapter of Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID).The latest round of strikes began in October, with five men refusing to eat by mid-November, including two men transferred from a privately run jail in Louisiana for forced medical treatment.

By now, three of the five strikers at the El Paso facility have been deported, an AVID volunteer said in an email. One man reached 65 days on hunger strike and was force-fed for a month before being granted bond by an immigration judge and released. The fifth man remains on hunger strike and is in poor condition. He is currently being force-fed and receiving “subpar” medical treatment, the group said.

ICE has set protocols for responding to a hunger strike and jail officials typically obtain a court order before force-feeding a prisoner. A number of medical and human rights groups consider force-feeding to be a form of torture.

“Force-feeding, especially when carried out by medical professionals, is ethically unacceptable,” said Ranit Mishori, the senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights, in a recent statement. “This practice is condemned by national and international medical organizations and experts and violates a detainee’s right to refuse treatment and to use a hunger strike as a form of political dissent.”

An ICE spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the hunger strikers in Louisiana.

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