Hunger Striker Nearing Death in ICE Custody: “I Just Want Freedom”

New Orleans — Doctors and advocates for incarcerated immigrants are demanding that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) release five South Asian asylum seekers on hunger strike at a remote ICE jail in Louisiana, where at least three strikers are being force-hydrated and at least two are being force-fed after refusing to eat and drink for over 75 days.

When a hunger striker’s health fails, ICE may obtain a court order to restrain the striker and force fluids and nutrients into their body with tubes, a process human rights groups and medical organizations consider to be a form of torture that violates a striker’s right to dissent. The hunger strikers at LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, say they will not break their strike until they are freed from jail, even at the risk of death.

Singh, a 22-year-old hunger striker fleeing religious persecution in India, spoke with Truthout over the phone on Friday. He said he can’t stand up without “seeing stars,” his stomach and chest are burning and his body is in constant pain. Singh, whose name has been changed to protect his identity in case he is deported, has been in jail for nearly a year and, like many others, has no idea when his asylum case will be resolved. He said he has not committed any crime and has never been incarcerated before.

“That’s why I just want freedom, so I can just live my life, because right now it’s a precious time of my life to do something for myself,” Singh said through an interpreter. “I can study, I can go to college and make a career and everything. It’s the most important time of my life, and I want to get released to fight my case from the outside.”

Freedom for Immigrants, a group working to end immigrant detention, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office on Thursday requesting that five men be released so they can receive urgently-needed medical treatment and pursue their asylum claims outside of jail. All five men have sponsors willing to house and support them while they fight their asylum case, according to the complaint. An ICE spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

The five men have been on strike since early November in protest of their indefinite detention under Trump administration policies that prioritize the mass incarceration of adult asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. without children. Physicians for Human Rights, a group of doctors that advocates against human rights abuses, said in a second complaint that the hunger strikers face “severe risks to their physical well-being, including the risk of death.”

The group said ICE has failed to respond to repeated requests for the strikers’ medical records and provide information about force-feeding and hydrating procedures, and obstructed the right to an independent medical evaluation as granted under ICE’s own policies.

“This makes it impossible for us to have a clear understanding of the hunger strikers’ current medical conditions and completely negates their access to independent evaluations, which is especially crucial as they enter the critical time in their hunger strike when vital organ functioning begins to shut down,” said Dr. Catherine Jones, a doctor in New Orleans.

The health of two of the men has continued to deteriorate, requiring regular admission to a local hospital, according to Michelle Graffeo, a volunteer who drives several hours to visit the men on weekends. Graffeo said Singh was coughing up cups full of bile several times a day and the other man’s blood pressure was dangerously low.

Singh, who was violently attacked by a militant Hindu group in India after converting to Christianity, “was really weak, but he believes God is going to help him get out of this,” Graffeo said.

Hunger strikes have swept immigration jails across the country under the President Trump’s punitive immigration policies, with immigrant rights groups documenting 14 strikes involving one or more strikers in 2019. At least 10 people are thought to be currently on strike in Louisiana alone, according to reports.

For incarcerated immigrants and asylum seekers, hunger strikes are a form of protest and a last-resort method of demanding an end to their indefinite detention. Under Trump, ICE agents have systematically refused to use their prosecutorial discretion to allow undocumented people to pursue their cases outside of jail. Immigration judges are denying bond requests at increasingly high rates, particularly in Louisiana, where immigration detention has rapidly expanded as local and privately-run jails open their doors to an influx of migrants and asylum seekers. As Truthout has reported, immigration courts in Louisiana order deportations at rates well above the national average.

“The growing number of hunger strikes in ICE prisons across the country are no coincidence,” said Sofia Casini, the southern regional coordinator at Freedom for Immigrants. “It is indicative of complete disbelief in a fair legal process and the lengths ICE is willing to go to indefinitely detain them.”

Once in jail, where phone calls and other basic necessities are often only available at inflated prices, it becomes difficult for immigrants and asylum seekers to stay connected with family and sponsors and gather the paperwork necessary to request bond and make an asylum claim. Singh and his sponsor said they have video evidence to support his asylum claim, but Singh must present it in court himself. However, LaSalle staff have so far not allowed his sponsor to send Singh a CD holding the evidence due to security restrictions.

For lower-income asylum seekers, it’s virtually impossible to make enough money to afford an immigration lawyer while incarcerated, but immigrants with lawyers are 10.5 times more likely to succeed with their asylum claim, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. These bleak realities, along with the general conditions of indefinite confinement, leave many asylum seekers in a state of despair and desperation.

“I can’t do anything without their permission. I can’t go out of one room,” Singh said. “I never been in this kind of situation before.”

ICE’s immigration jails are facing mounting criticism for untimely deaths, sexual assaults, poor conditions, medical neglect and the routine use of force against prisoners. Medical experts say the treatment of hunger strikers is no different. While ICE has set protocols for responding to hunger strikes and typically requests a court order to initiate force-feeding, the agency has the incentive to break strikes to avoid more negative media attention and prevent similar protests from spreading.

Singh has been force-hydrated, but not force-fed like two other men who on strike. Singh and his supporters do not know why, but it could be because he is viewed as a ringleader. Singh said he requested a copy of the Bible translated into Hindi from the jail’s religious services but has not received one. Still, he is not giving up.

“I didn’t do any crime, I just seek asylum,” Singh said.