In El Paso, Texas, not far from where President Trump delivered a speech riddled with falsehoods and jingoism at a pro-wall rally on Tuesday, at least nine Sikh men reportedly fleeing persecution in India have been on hunger strike in an immigration jail for weeks.
The asylum seekers are protesting their detention and the conditions of the jail, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have responded by force-feeding the men, throwing them in solitary confinement and threatening them with deportation when they refused the force-feeding, according to the Detention Watch Network.
Force-feeding at the immigration jail involves tying the striker to a bed and pumping liquid nutrients down the nose and esophagus. Last week, human rights officials at the U.N. said the treatment of the strikers could constitute torture under international law. In a statement to Mother Jones, ICE denied placing the strikers in solitary confinement, but supporters of the striking Sikhs say they have continued to face abuse as retaliation for resisting the feeding tubes.
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Ruby Kaur, an attorney for the hunger strikers, said in a statement Friday that the hunger strikers have scars on their arms from IV needles, are suffering rectal bleeding and find blood in their vomit, in addition to experiencing “persistent stomach, chest and throat pain.” Liz Martinez, a spokesperson for Freedom for Immigrants, one of the groups supporting the strikers, told Truthout on Tuesday that the strikers are currently facing the same treatment.
“We’re calling on lawmakers to conduct oversight in the facility,” Martinez said, adding that the strikers are demanding to be released and allowed to continue their asylum cases outside of jail. “We’ve got so many reports from there about not just force-feeding but other abuses by the staff.”
This is far from the first time that jailed immigrants have gone on hunger strike — or the first time that ICE and private prison officials have obtained legal permission to forcibly feed hunger strikers. Since May 2015, Freedom for Immigrants has documented nearly 1,400 people on hunger strike in 18 immigration jails across the United States. Since the spring of last year, advocates for migrants and asylum seekers have documented large numbers of South Asian hunger strikers held in jails near the border with Mexico. In El Paso, immigrant and human rights groups are demanding that federal officials release the hunger strikers and investigate the jail.
Trump Demands More Incarceration
Lakshmi Sridaran, policy director at Advocacy for South Asian Americans Leading Together, said the abuse at the immigration jail in El Paso echoes recent reports of torture from South Asian immigrants incarcerated in New Mexico, California and across the U.S.
“In the shadow of Trump’s border wall is immigration detention, a system shrouded in secrecy where a culture of violence persists,” said Sridaran in a statement. “The retaliation and abuse that hunger strikers have been forced to endure underscore the egregious conditions endemic to the detention system nationwide.”
The hunger strike and allegations of torture and abuse come as ICE and the Trump administration argue for increasing deportations and expanding the nation’s vast system of immigration jails run by ICE and private prison contractors. President Trump continues to paint undocumented people as dangerous criminal “aliens” who must be caged and deported, even as studies show that violent crime rates are lower among undocumented immigrants and in the areas where they live.
This system of mass incarceration has come under heavy scrutiny since the Obama administration over reports of abuse, unhealthy conditions, untimely deaths and even slave labor. In January, government auditors found that ICE has failed to hold private prison contractors accountable for “deficient conditions” within immigration jails in thousands of cases. These include medical neglect, solitary confinement and other abuses that have resulted in suicides and death, according to civil and human rights groups.
Martinez explained that immigration jails did not exist until the 1980s. Their capacity expanded rapidly during the 1990s and as “tough on crime” policies supported by private prison companies caused skyrocketing mass incarceration in the U.S.
“It’s not a detention facility; it’s a prison, it’s a jail,” Martinez said. “It’s run by the same private prison companies that operate in the criminal justice system.”
Martinez added that the hunger strikers are risking their lives to call attention to the “inhumane” conditions within jails that are supported by public tax dollars.
“We’re concerned nobody is holding ICE or the prison system accountable for this,” Martinez said.
Criticism of this system was mounting by the end of his term, so President Obama began to reduce the mass incarceration of immigrants by deprioritizing enforcement against people living in the U.S. without documentation who had not been charged with crimes. Trump reversed this policy as part of his harsh immigration crackdown, causing populations in immigration jails to swell and pushing the system over its budget afforded by Congress.
Trump’s now-defunct family separation policy and other policies designed to punish migrant families and asylum seekers at the border have further inflated immigrant incarceration rates. Over the past 10 weeks, the number of adults and children held in U.S. immigration jails has grown from 45,422 to 48,747, according to the Detention Watch Network. However, Congress has only provided funding to hold 40,500 immigrants per day.
Since Trump took office, federal spending on ICE has ballooned by 40 percent as the agency lobbied for more money and sucked up funding from other agencies.
Trump has demanded funding for holding up to 52,000 people in ICE jails per day, but Democrats in Congress know that paying for more beds means more arrests and raids that tear apart families in districts that many Democrats represent. Democrats attempted to use recent budget talks to cap the number of beds available in ICE jails for people arrested in the interior of the country, but with another government shutdown looming by the week’s end, both parties have reportedly agreed on a compromise that upholds the status quo.
“A Business of Inhumanity”
Because of the racist rhetoric about “violent aliens” coming from Trump and his supporters in law enforcement, the debate in the dominant media around the proposed cap on immigrant “detention” has centered around the number of people jailed for committing violent crimes versus those arrested for minor crimes or simply being undocumented.
ICE and the White House claim they need more room to incarcerate immigrants that threaten public safety; Democrats and social justice advocates say “non-criminal” people who support families and contribute to communities are caught in the dragnet, often after committing minor traffic violations or no crime at all. Much of this discourse ignores discriminatory policing and social factors like access to steady employment that shape crime statistics, not to mention laws that criminalize undocumented people for existing in the first place. Many activists point out that debates that divide immigrants into “good” and “bad” categories are counterproductive and ultimately, harmful.
Moreover, any immigration debate must not ignore the dire conditions inside immigration jails, which are generously called “detention centers” by much of the media. Hunger strikers are risking their lives to draw public attention to the conditions in immigration jails, and the very fact that they have been incarcerated for seeking asylum and refuge in the U.S. in the first place.
Due to court backlogs, people are often held in ICE custody for months and years. It’s not simply a system of detention; it’s part of a system of mass incarceration, and like the rest of the prison system, the people left in cages are disproportionately poor, Black and Brown. It’s also a source of profit for the private companies ICE hires to run its jails. As the agency grants Trump’s wishes for more arrests and deportations, these contractors will be under pressure to cut corners in order to accommodate more bodies. This could yield even more dismal conditions in immigration jails.
“It’s a business of inhumanity,” Martinez said.