Fifty-four South Asians seeking U.S. asylum, who had been on a hunger strike for seven days at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in El Paso, Texas, ended their no water-no food fast Oct. 21, allegedly after being threatened by Bangladeshi diplomatic officials.
Strikers were protesting confinement, lack of access to health care or medical staff, lack of access to interpreters who speak their Bangla dialect, harsh treatment from guards, and possible deportation. Several of the men had been stripped-searched by guards Oct. 16, in full view of other detainees, Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, told India-West.
A similar strike was launched Oct. 19 by 15 South Asians at ICE’s facility in LaSalle, Louisiana. Four Indians held there have been in detention for more than two years, despite passing credible fear interviews.
All 54 of the El Paso strikers have passed “credible fear” interviews, which would make them eligible for release to U.S. relatives until their asylum cases are heard. But they are still being detained because of their affiliation to the Bangladesh National Party, the second-largest political party in Bangladesh, according to Ahmed.
A recent memo from the Department of Homeland Security identifies the BNP as an undesignated “Tier III” terrorist organization. DHS has determined that members of the BNP are ineligible for asylum or withholding of removal due to alleged engagement in terrorist activities.
The National Immigration Project has noted that DHS regularly denies bond to Bangladeshi BNP members and, in bond proceedings, argues that immigration judges do not have jurisdiction to re-determine custody status.
“Contrary to DHS’ assertions, the BNP is not a Tier III terrorist organization and therefore membership in the BNP does not constitute engaging in terrorist activities,” stated the NIP in an Aug. 24 advisory.
The State Department has not listed the BNP in its annual list of foreign terrorist organizations.
According to DRUM, the hunger strike ended after ICE brought in Bangladeshi Consular Minister Shamsul Alam Chowdhury into the detention facility to pressure the group – known as the El Paso 54 – to break their hunger strike. The Consulate spent over 10 hours in the facility allegedly pressuring and intimidating the hunger strikers, including threatening “eat now, or I will get your birth certificates from Bangladesh, so we can get your travel documents to send you back,” according to a press statement issued by DRUM.
“DRUM firmly believes that ICE allowing the consular to visit asylum seeking detainees is in violation of federal laws and further endangers lives by exposing asylum seekers to representatives of the very same government they are seeking asylum from,” said the New York-based organization in a press statement.
Seven of the fasting men at El Paso are now in critical medical condition, Ahmed told India-West.
Leticia Zamarippa, public affairs officer for DHS at the El Paso facility, told India-West that the hunger strikers had stopped their fast on the evening of Oct. 20. She confirmed that Chowdhury and consular officials had met with the protestors, but declined to state what was discussed during the meeting. Zamarippa also stated that consular officials are entitled to visit and communicate with detained nationals.
Zamarippa said that no hunger strikers are under medical care due to fast-related medical conditions. Refuting claims of ill-treatment by guards, Zamarippa said: “No hunger strikers have been treated differently from the other ICE detainees. ICE takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care.”
Many of the hunger strikers – who walked for several months by foot from Brazil or Peru before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border – have been detained for nine to 11 months. After the hunger strike began, six of the fasters at the El Paso facility were released Oct. 16; another five non-fasters were also released.
But on the same day, Haji Khiay Mohamed Bilal, one of the lead organizers of the fast, was allegedly beaten up in front of the other detainees and dragged away to solitary confinement, according to Ahmed. Bilal spent 48 hours in solitary confinement, noted Ahmed, without receiving any legal reason for the harsh action.
Bilal has again been placed in solitary confinement after the hunger strike ended, according to Ahmed.