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
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.”
I’m Being Held at a Border Detention Center. I’m Scared They’ll Let Us Die.
The virus spread quickly in San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center. Detainees were given one mask and cleaning spray.
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. Over 140 detained immigrants in Otay Mesa have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to ICE’s official count. Carlos Escobar-Mejia was the virus’s first casualty in ICE detention.
Throughout April, panic spread through Otay Mesa in tandem with the virus. Detained immigrants describe scenes of constant anxiety and mortal fear: There was a strong sense that the staff of the facility, run by the for-profit prison behemoth CoreCivic, would be unable to contain the virus. In Otay Mesa, like many other ICE detention centers, dozens of people sleep in rows of bunk beds in single large rooms. Officially, these separate areas are known as “units,” but detained people often call the rooms the “tanques,” or tanks. Inside these tanks, where beds are close together and people have to share a limited number of bathrooms, social distancing is essentially impossible, and detainees feel exposed and vulnerable to the pathogen.
“Everybody is distraught, everyone is scared,” Alberto said the day Escobar-Mejia died. “The guards just came to tell us, ‘Oh wash your hands, clean them well with soap.’ And then others came in to tell us that someone who was here has died.”
Alberto says that he and a dozen men in his unit have stopped eating to protest their treatment during the coronavirus pandemic. By many indications, hunger strikes have been widespread in ICE detention centers across the country. The motivations for the strikes have varied: In the Northwestern ICE Detention Center in Washington state, René Rubén Ramírez-Alatorre said he’d gone a week without eating because the guards were still bringing new detainees into the detention center, putting everyone at risk of exposure. “They have not taken any precautions to stop the coronavirus from getting into the detention center,” Ramírez said when we spoke in April.
In an ICE facility in Arizona, three different men said a hunger strike had started there to pressure the guards into testing people for the coronavirus. In a detention center in Georgia, detainees were organizing a hunger strike to pressure guards into stricter safety measures. “We are hunger striking for cleaning supplies, for the guards to wear masks and gloves, and so we can have soap to wash our hands,” said Jose Miranda-Gonzalez, a detainee at the Folkston ICE Processing Center in rural Georgia. “We’re basically sitting here waiting for a death sentence.” In other facilities, detainees told me about running out of soap, and having to buy more in the commissary; cleaning showers with shampoo because there was no disinfectant; and mopping the floor with just water. Many of the hunger strikes say they haven’t demanded release, but rather that they be provided with basic hygienic products.
“We are hunger striking for cleaning supplies, for the guards to wear masks and gloves, and so we can have soap to wash our hands.”
While ICE acknowledges that there have been some hunger strikes, it has aggressively denied the scale of the protests described by detainees, who say they have become widespread. Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokesperson, said the agency has seen a “huge uptick in the flooding of misinformation about hunger strikes, many that are inaccurate or grossly exaggerated.” In the high-stress environment of detention centers in a time of a pandemic, rumors and overstatements have certainly proliferated, and, elsewhere, ICE officials have shared their concern that anti-ICE advocacy groups have coordinated campaigns to overexaggerate or even fabricate hunger strike claims. Bennett said that the agency will readily provide confirmation when a detainee or a group of detainees are refusing meals — and she indeed confirmed multiple cases. But she denied that many of the other strikes detainees described were happening.
The disparity between ICE’s count of hunger strikes and detainees’ allegations is immense: I heard a bevy of statements from detainees locked in Washington’s Northwestern Detention Center that claimed that many people — potentially hundreds — were hunger striking. ICE said there hasn’t been a single strike in that facility in the last calendar year.
Part of this disparity can perhaps be explained by semantics: ICE defines a hunger strike as any period of over 72 hours in which a detainee goes without food. Individual detainees might have a looser definition, such as refusing food for a few meals, or fasting intermittently. Some say they are refusing meals but still making purchases of food from the commissary, causing ICE to believe their hunger strike is over, even though they’re actually redistributing the goods to fellow detainees who are not striking.
Still others claimed their strikes were cut short because of threats of retaliation from guards. In Otay Mesa and Adelanto, another California detention center, detainees said they feared getting pepper-sprayed (guards have repeatedly pepper-sprayed people protesting during the pandemic in other detention centers). In the La Palma detention center, multiple detainees (as well as one of their attorneys) told me that a hunger strike had been suppressed after guards threatened to make participants spend eight days in el hoyo — the hole, a single-person holding cell. “For whatever tiny reason, they’ll take someone to el hoyo,” said a Mexican asylum seeker in La Palma. “El hoyo is how they punish us.” In the Northwest Detention Center, Ramírez said that he had been separated from other hunger strike organizers, and then pressured by both ICE officers and private prison guards to sign his own deportation papers. Ramírez claimed that he felt threatened with even physical violence, and he signed the documents. But before he was deported, his attorney, in a race against time, successfully reopened his case.
Bennett, the ICE spokesperson, said any claims of retaliation — including the one alleged by Ramírez — were very serious, and needed to be scrutinized and called into question. “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” she said. Even as recently as March, ICE had allowed hunger strikes in other facilities to continue for months without retaliation. Bennett noted that there are reporting mechanisms in place for detainees to report abuses such as retaliation.
What’s not in dispute is the seriousness and severity of a hunger strike, especially now: Doctors say the health risks of undereating are much higher during a pandemic. According to Dr. Ranit Mishori, professor of family medicine at Georgetown and senior medical advisor for Physician for Human Rights, there’s a direct link between malnourishment and a higher risk of infection.
“There are two effects [from a hunger] strike. It makes someone more susceptible to acquiring an infection, and, once someone has it, it makes it much harder to fight the infection,” Mishori said. “It’s a double whammy.”
When the coronavirus pandemic first took hold in the U.S. in March, Mishori contributed her expert opinion to Dada v. Witte, a lawsuit demanding the release of a collection of medically vulnerable ICE detainees across the South. Two of the plaintiffs were Indian asylum seekers who had spent months hunger striking in ICE facilities to protest their ongoing detention. In her contribution to the case, Mishori wrote that their malnutrition left them at heightened risk for Covid-19.
Mishori is careful not to criticize detainees’ decision to hunger strike, even with the accompanying health dangers. “The decision to give up food is a very serious decision,” she said. “People are not hunger striking because they don’t like the color of the paint on the wall. If I were ICE, I’d be asking: What are the root causes of these hunger strikes? What about these facilities is making people deprive themselves of food?”
For Alberto, the situation in Otay Mesa actually got worse when the guards tried to stop the spread of the virus. When someone in detention tests positive for Covid-19, ICE’s policy is not to quarantine individuals, but rather “cohort” an entire group: This means everyone who may have had exposure to the sick individual is rounded up and placed in the same unit. In mid-April, Alberto’s tanque was cohorted, and he and other men were forced to go to another unit. Alberto said this was a terrifying experience because it felt like getting locked in with the infection, as if they were being sacrificed to the virus.
“We tried to resist, we did not want to go — we knew that we were going to be more contaminated if we left,” Alberto said. But the men backed down and complied when the guards allegedly threatened them with force.
R. Andrew Free, a Nashville immigration attorney who focuses on civil rights cases, said he has seen many hunger strikes in ICE detention centers over his career. But he said the current moment is unprecedented — he’s hearing about strikes all over the country as conditions have gotten more serious, and quarantines cut off detainee’s access to lawyers and phone calls.
“If I were ICE, I’d be asking: What are the root causes of these hunger strikes? What about these facilities is making people deprive themselves of food?”
“When you’re cut off from communication, from courts, from lawyers, and family members, and you’re on lockdown, hunger-striking one of the only ways you can have control and agency over yourself — you just don’t eat,” Free said.
Free and other lawyers have successfully fought for the “humanitarian release” of almost 200 detainees in light of the Covid-19 dangers in detention, and ICE has released hundreds more on the agency’s own discretion. But locked in Otay Mesa, Alberto said it feels like little has changed.
“We know organizations have won demands, but only one person in this unit has gotten out,” he said. Their demands still included humanitarian parole, but also more basic desires, such as transparent information on the number of cases, and a return to their old unit.
By the time Alberto and I spoke, he had gone without eating for more than two weeks. “It feels horrible,” he said about the fellow detainee’s death. It’s what motivated him to continue the strike.