Illustration: Anson Chan

Inside the ICE Detainee Hunger Strikes Across the Country

Across the U.S., migrants say they face cramped quarters, soap and disinfectant shortages, and violent threats from guards

Jack Herrera
Published in
8 min readMay 14, 2020

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When the guards came in on May 6 to tell the detainees that someone in their unit had died, Alberto had already gone 17 days without eating. Dozens of others in the Otay Mesa Detention Center had done the same, he said. The detainee, a Salvadoran named Carlos Escobar-Mejia who had spent decades living in the U.S., had died from complications related to the coronavirus. The news shook Alberto deeply — it embodied exactly why he and 12 other unit-mates had gone on a hunger strike in the first place.

The strike had started in mid-April; by early May, Alberto, a thirtysomething Salvadoran asylum-seeker who spoke on the condition we not reveal his real name, said the strikers had no intention of stopping. At first, Alberto and the other detainees went on strike to demand humanitarian parole or a transfer out of their unit, where there had been confirmed Covid-19 cases. But quickly their demands grew simpler: They just wanted transparency. They wanted to know how many people had the virus; they wanted to know how the other detainee had died; and they wanted to know what was going to happen to them. Alberto said the guards had refused to answer any questions about Escobar-Mejia’s death, and had not immediately confirmed whether he had died of Covid-19, leaving everyone in a state of confusion and panic. “They are depriving us of all our rights,” Alberto said over the phone. “The most basic demand we have right now is for information.”

Almost 950 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in ICE detention centers, but nowhere is the situation as dire as in Otay Mesa, a privately run facility near the California-Mexico border. Since a 54-year-old Mexican man tested positive for the coronavirus in the facility on April 4, the number of cases has continued to grow. It’s now the top Covid-19 hotspot among ICE detention centers…

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Jack Herrera
GEN
Writer for

…is an independent reporter covering immigration, refugee issues and human rights. His work has appeared in The Nation, Pacific Standard, and USA TODAY.